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The Unquiet Grave

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Decades after Daryl Dixon was murdered a small fleet of construction equipment shows up on the ridge just over his grave. Bright yellow backhoes and bulldozers rip down the trees, level the earth, and a few weeks later a construction crew is swarming all over this patch of Daryl’s woods. They start in the spring, Daryl finds out the exact date when he spots an open newspaper with March 2, 2010 under the headline. Boyd Guthrie and the rest of the Savage Sons beat Daryl to death behind Willie’s Bar in the early hours of October 14, 1979. Over thirty years ago now.

They buried him out here in this remote corner of the Chattahoochee Forest the same day they killed him, and Daryl waits for the construction crew to uncover his bones. Much to his relief they haven’t yet; despite trampling and dragging their equipment directly over the spot. Daryl hopes his luck holds; he’s not interested in finding out what will happen if his bones are discovered and given a “proper burial” by these men. Death taught Daryl from the first instant to be grateful things aren’t worse. The crossover from life into death had started with the world fading out as Boyd stomped the back of Daryl’s head with his steel-toed boots. The very next instant everything snapped back into bright, hellish clarity. He could see and hear everything just fine, could feel his own blood cooling against his skin, could feel the hard-packed earth that was the parking lot of Willie’s. Daryl couldn’t move or speak, and for the briefest of moments thought he’d just been paralyzed.

Then Ace Morrow stared into Daryl’s open eyes and said, “Aw geez, Boyd. You done kill’t him.”

“Fucking queer deserved it,” Boyd said.

“Merle ain’t gonna be happy,” Danny Fontane grumbled just outside of Daryl’s vision. He’d been the one who held Daryl’s arms behind his back while Boyd waded in with fists wrapped in bicycle chains.

“Merle’ll get over it,” Boyd said, “Shit, we did him a favor.”

Boyd made Danny and Ace wrap Daryl’s body up in a tarp and lug it of a pickup truck. They drove for a bit, the rattle of the engine identifying the truck as Ace’s old Dodge. The truck stopped, there was the slam of the Dodge’s doors, then a terrifying black silence that lasted for hours before hearing a voice scream out,“I wanna see him! I wanna fucking SEE him!” The tarp vanished and Daryl found himself looking into his brother’s tear-streaked face.

Daryl couldn’t remember ever see him cry before.

“Oh my sweet Jesus,” Merle whispered, more tears leaking from his eyes. Merle laid a shaking hand on Daryl’s cheek, and much to his surprise he could feel it. And he could feel the whiskery kiss that Merle pressed against his forehead. Somewhere in the background Boyd was jabbering away, saying he was sorry but did Merle expect him to do? What the fuck was any man supposed to do when some queer tried to suck his his dick?

Daryl could see from Merle’s eyes that his brother didn’t believe the bullshit spewing out of Boyd’s mouth. Could see that even though Merle said, “I understand. Tried so hard my own self to beat it out of ‘im when he was a kid” that Boyd was not forgiven. Merle was not going to let this go, and despite everything Daryl loved him fiercely in that moment. Merle leaned down and kissed him again before he tenderly replaced the tarp over Daryl’s face.

Blackness again, slightly less terrifying because he knew Merle was somewhere nearby. Then hours of driving over bumped and pitted backroads god knew where. The truck stopped, the doors slammed shut, and he was dragged out. Daryl was carried slung between the two men for another fifteen minutes or so; they said nothing but Daryl could tell that the one who had him by the top part was Merle. Especially when whoever had a hold of his feet just let go and while Merle lowered him gently to the ground.

An unknown amount of time passed where Daryl heard nothing but the rhythmic scrape of metal against earth. His panic started to grow, and it peaked when he felt the first weight of the wet each thrown on his remains.

No Bubba don’t let them, Daryl screamed in his mind, reverting to his childhood name for his big brother in the midst of his panic. More weight, the noises from the outside world fading until he could hear nothing. He was imprisoned in darkness and silence and could do nothing but scream helplessly and pray for madness oh god this was hell, worse than any fire or demons or—

The world shifted. Daryl was standing outside, above ground, the change so sudden and relief so overwhelming he spent a long time just staring up at the sky without registering where he was. When Daryl came back to himself he noted vaguely they were just beneath a ridge overlooking a wooded valley. The night was black as Satan’s asshole but Daryl could see. The night had an eerie glow to it, the weak moonlight illuminating the entire forest like a spot light.

The next thing he registered was Merle kneeling down right in front of him, palm flat against the disturbed earth and breathing raggedly.

“Merle?” Boyd’s voice, “We best be on our way.”

“Need a minute,” Merle said in a thick voice, “He was my brother even if he was a queer.”

“Fine,” Boyd muttered, “I’ll be in the truck.”

Daryl was too relieved to be free from the earth to be angry. He could move, he could turn around, and when he looked down he saw he was dressed in the simple black t-shirt and jeans he’d worn to Willie’s that evening.

“Thank you fucking Jesus,” Daryl muttered. He heard the door to the truck slam shut, “If that prick didn’t want to waste his evenin’ up here he shouldn’t’ve bashed my head in.”

Merle let out a choked sob, hand going to his face. Daryl reached down and squeezed his shoulder, surprised that he could do it, surprised that he could feel the leather of Merle’s jacket beneath his hand. It didn’t go both ways; Merle took no notice of his brother’s comforting gesture. Merle’s fists balled up into the earth and he growled out, “Fuckers will pay for this, baby brother. I swear to you on everything.”  Then he was getting to his feet and walking back to the truck.

Daryl never saw him again.

The taillights of the truck faded into the night. Daryl was too disoriented by what had happened to follow. In the distance he could hear the distinct “Who looks for you?” cry of a barred owl, and the chattering noise of katydids from all around. Daryl stared down at his grave and saw a bit of metal flashing in the moonlight. He bent down and saw it was the army issued Zippo lighter Merle’d brought back from ‘Nam. On one side was a hand-engraved skull and the words:

15 KILLS

IF YOU ARE RECOVERING MY BODY

FUCK YOU

Merle had stuck the Zippo lighter straight into the earth like the world’s smallest tombstone. Later Daryl will wonder if this simple act of marking his grave was what freed him from the ground. He supposes he’ll never know one way or another.

It sure feels right.

Three decades later Daryl watches the construction crew trample over his grave again and a-fucking-gain. He wonders if his bones were discovered and unearthed what would happen.  Wonders if he’d pass over into the Great Beyond or start haunting whatever pauper’s grave is his new resting place. Given these options Daryl is perfectly content to stay where he is. He’s not exactly happy—he’s fucking dead, after all—but he’s at peace. Daryl spent most of his life in woods like these, hunting and just enjoying the outdoors. The area of his haunt is beautiful, and Daryl can think of worse places to spend eternity. If he crosses over into the next life he definitely ain’t going to the place with the harps and angels floating on fluffy clouds. Haunting a cemetery is even worse—if his remains are identified they’ll probably shove him into the graveyard of Mountain View Baptist right next to his Daddy. Daryl doesn’t know if graveyards are full of ghosts that he can see and be seen by. Doesn’t know if he’ll actually talk to Will Dixon and has absolutely no interest in finding out.

He’d rather spend the rest of eternity the same way he’s spent the past thirty years—roaming through the boundaries of his haunt cataloging the flora and fauna. There’s an endless variety of life that teems in this corner of the Southern Appalachians and his death just makes it all the more amazing. He can spend hours watching a spider spin its web, days following a black bear until it crosses out of Daryl’s range, years watching a small family of foxes grow from rambunctious kits to full-fledged hunters. Daryl doesn’t even find himself wanting for human company. Just inside the boundary is a stretch of the Appalachian Trail complete with an overnight shelter. Certain times of the year things can get downright lively. Groups of hikers sit around a campfire talking and Daryl drifts among them stopping to listen to any interesting conversations.

Daryl’s favorite conversations are when the hikers tell each other ghost stories.

During these visits Daryl learns that—with a great deal of effort for pitiful results—he can affect the physical world. It works best when he tries to help things along rather than do something brand new. Knock an unsteady backpack over. Loosen shoelaces that are on their way to coming undone. Use a gentle summer breeze to blow icy cold down a guy’s neck. Daryl usually only fucks with groups of people this way. Solitary hikers he just watches, sometimes looking over their shoulders if they start reading a book. He only gets a chapter or a two at a time this way, random glimpses at a larger story he’s cut off from. A too-apt symbol for his entire existence these days.

It doesn’t happen often, but when Daryl gets bored or depressed enough he just switches off. When he comes back to the world days or years later he’s as refreshed as he remembers being after a good night’s sleep; even if switching off itself is nothing at all like sleep. Switching off is something that Daryl desperately wishes he could do for the duration of construction but he can’t. He doesn’t know why—no one gave him a fucking handbook explaining where he goes when he switches off or what exactly makes him come back or why he can only go a certain distance from his grave before looping back to it or why fucking any of it. What he does have are few theories and observations made over the past three decades. The big one is that living people within the boundaries of his haunt does something to him; calls out to him and pulls him into their orbit. The hikers on the Trail are just far enough away he can tune them out until they pass out of range but he’s still aware of them, a prickling at the back of his neck and a tug in his gut. The construction crew is something else entirely—they’re so close to his grave they may as well be up his ass. Tromping over the ground tearing down his trees and scaring off his animals, exerting a fucking pull over him that makes just high-tailing it to some other part of his haunt extremely difficult. Spring melts into summer and things get even worse; Daryl doesn’t get a moment’s fucking peace from dawn until dusk most days.

The silver lining to the fact that the living screw up his undead rhythm is that affecting the physical world becomes much easier. It’s still fucking difficult and he can’t do anything spectacular but since he’s fucking stuck and has to deal with this bullshit it’s worth the effort. Workers are locked out of their vehicles, equipment breaks down, electrical cords become tangled, wood piles get knocked over, tools malfunction. Daryl follows the most obnoxious workers around the site for hours, placing his hands on the back of their necks and concentrating. It’s the hardest thing to do but if Daryl focuses he can make them stop in their tracks and shiver. One guy almost passes out when Daryl breaks out the big guns and remembers the night he was murdered. Every thrown punch and desperate attempt to survive packed down like a crushed beer can and hurled at the guy with all the strength Daryl has.

The workers start whispering—correctly—that this place is haunted. Two men quit. Daryl overhears the foreman say they’re behind schedule and feels savage triumph. Daryl does know he’s hurting himself in the long run—dragging this out for longer than it needs to be—but he doesn’t give a shit. He can’t fucking rest, is tethered to this corner of the world, and misery loves company.

He might have kept it up all the way until the end of construction—or all the men quit, whichever came first—if Aaron hadn’t come to visit the site.

*********************

It’s mid-June when a strange little foreign car unlike anything Daryl ever saw pulls into the site. The car is the type of shiny and clean that screams it’s brand new and just off the lot. Daryl recognizes the Toyota logo but nothing else about the make of the car; to him it looks weird and futuristic. All this drives home just how long he’s been dead, and how much the world has moved without the slightest hiccup without Daryl in it.

The driver steps out of the car and all of Daryl’s brooding thoughts about his death vanish. The owner of the Toyota is tall—few inches taller than Daryl was in life—and lithe with a pair of legs that go on for miles. He’s handsome as all fucking hell—a full lower lip, deep set blue eyes, a straight nose, curly hair and scruff on his cheeks. His good looks are only amplified by the way he’s looking around at the construction site—eyes sparkling and a smile that refuses to go away.  The shirt he’s wearing is is fitted enough that Daryl can get a good look at his body—-he’s all lean, wiry muscle and far more graceful than a man with that much arm and leg should be.

Jesus. It ain’t fair, Daryl’s dead and he doesn’t have a dick anymore or an actual body with actual hormones to get turned on but it still fucking happens. He still involuntarily starts thinking about what it’d be like to slide his hands over this man’s chest, how his scruff would feel scraping against his own as they kissed. What it would be like to have this man’s dick in his mouth. It's all speculation, he has no idea what any of this would be like and never will; he’d never so much as touched another man that way. Something he bitterly regrets—if he was going to be killed for being a fag anyways he might as well’ve enjoyed himself a bit beforehand. Although a guy like this wouldn’t have ever looked twice at Daryl in life; too handsome for one, with a new car that spoke to having a lot of money for two, and just something about him that screamed “college boy.”

“Mr. Raleigh,” a voice calls out, and Daryl sees the foreman coming with a hand outstretched.

“Tobin,” the apparent Mr. Raleigh says as he takes the beefy guy’s hand, “I keep asking you to call me Aaron. ‘Mr. Raleigh’ was my father,” he pauses for a beat, “Actually it was Colonel Raleigh and if you called him ‘Mister’ you’d regret it. But. Uh. Sentiment’s the same.”

“Gotcha. Sorry, we weren’t expecting you, if I’d’ve known you were coming—“

Mr. Raleigh—Aaron—waves him off, “No, no. We’re just in Blue Ridge to pick up the Jeep and wanted to stop by.”

“Oh, is your fella coming too? If you want to wait until he gets here I can show you both around.”

“Yeah, that’d be great. He’s just behind me.”

Wait, Daryl thinks, then “fella?” Before he can truly puzzle this out a massive Jeep that is as shiny and new as the Toyota pulls up and a young man gets out. He’s thin, with auburn hair, warm brown eyes, and a smile that rivals Aaron’s.

“Eric!” Aaron says, grinning and waving him over. When they meet Eric’s hand goes very clearly to Aaron’s waist, one hand around his hip. It’s discrete but the gesture so obviously intimate as is the way Aaron smiles at him that Daryl realizes that yes, these two are a together. Together, and the big, beefy redneck construction foreman doesn’t bat an eye.

Daryl is so stunned if he weren’t already dead he’d probably have a heart attack.

Hard hats are provided for the two men and Tobin leads them through the site, pointing out different places and explaining what they’ll eventually be. Daryl drifts along after them in a stunned haze, staring at the expressions of excitement on Aaron and Eric’s faces.

“We’re behind schedule,” Tobin admits, “We’ve had the damnedest luck up here. Some of the guys think the place is haunted.”

“Haunted?” Eric says, “It’s a new construction.”

“Well,” Aaron says, “this entire country is on an Indian burial ground, so that might have something to do with it.”

Daryl snorts, Eric rolls his eyes, and Tobin gives a blank look and says, “Well, anyhow. The place should be ready to go by Christmas, God willing and no more delays.”

“Well, we won’t be coming out here until spring,” Eric says, “So if the ghosts give you any more trouble we can roll with it.”

“I’m sure there are no ghosts,” Aaron says, “And I’m sure everything will be done when you say. Anyway, Eric and I were going to just take a hike in the valley for a bit, then we’ll be on our way. Good talking to you, Tobin.”

“Y’all got a compass?” Tobin says fretfully, “It don’t look like much but this valley’s easy to get turned around in.”

“Gosh, is it really?” Eric says, eyes wide, “Aaron, do you have our compass?”

Tobin doesn’t see the pinch Aaron gives his companion but Daryl does. “We’ll be careful.”

The two men return their hard hats, grab a backpack from the Jeep, and head down toward the valley, past the greatest part of construction. Daryl follows and shivers all over when they stop and look up at the wooden frame rising up on the ridge above them. They’re standing right on top of Daryl’s bones.

“Babe, did you remember our compass?” Eric asks after a moment of silence. Daryl notices for the first time there’s a bit of a mountain twang in his accent.

Aaron gives him another pinch, “Ass. He’s a good guy.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Eric replies, “The Trail’s northeast of here, right?”

“Right,” Aaron affirms, “I don’t think we can make it today, unless you want to really rough it tonight.”

“Let’s see how far we get,” Eric says, and the two set out through the woods in the exact direction, weaving through the trees and always correcting themselves when they have to go around something. They’re quiet for a long time before Eric meditatively says, “It’s too bad that the Andersons wouldn’t sell us their place, we could’ve moved in already. No ghosts that I know of. Do they hurt the resale value, you think?”

“We could’ve kept looking—“ Aaron says.

“I’m just teasing,” Eric says with a smile, “I’m glad we’re doing it this way. It’ll be perfect, ghosts and all. I’m so excited, babe.”

“Wait until next winter when I’m working on the second draft and losing my mind and you go for the axe,” Aaron replies.

“If I haven’t killed you by the second draft you’re safe,” Eric says archly, “Research mode is when you have to worry. ‘Eric, what type of pens did people use in 1940? Does it matter if I just say pen and don’t specify what kind? Do you think people will care if I make this house blue instead of yellow? It’s yellow now but in 1950 it was probably blue—‘“

Aaron gives his shoulder an affectionate nudge, his cheeks a little pink, “I get it. Just. Nervous is all.”

“About the book?”

“The book, blowing half my advance building a haunted Indian Burial Ground Cabin…”

“Babe, it’s gonna be fine,” Eric says, “We went through this with the first one. Look how well things turned out. We can afford a few Indian Burial Ground Cabins.”

“Yeah, but with a second book you have expectations to live up to—“

“Aaron,” Eric says, voice filled with exasperated fondness, “you’ll live up to any expectations. Even if you don’t you won’t suck so bad you can’t make it up with book three.”

“So I’ve got two chances to screw up instead of one,” Aaron replies.

Eric takes Aaron’s hand in his own and squeezes, “Just think, babe. Most people only get one .”

“Well, if I screw up both books then I’ll still have you.”

“Oh no, I’m definitely gonna leave you if your second and third book are shit. I can’t be seen in public with a failed novelist. Even one who gives blowjobs as good as you.”

Aaron grins, leans down, and kisses him right there in the open. Daryl holds a breath he no longer needs, eyes wide and heart that’s long turned to dust pounding. It’s a short, sweet kiss and they’re blocked from the construction site by the trees but Daryl still starts looking around frantically. Daryl wants to scream at them, don’t they know what they’re doing, what will happen to them if they just…let it all out like this? Kiss outside where someone could walk by? Talk about blowjobs…and…They’re planning on living out here with people knowing what they are? Fuck, are they just going to go into Blue Ridge on the weekends, have dinner at the Lodge across the street from Willie’s? There’s bashed in skulls and lonely graves in the woods waiting for guys who…guys who…

To Daryl’s relief the two men pull apart, smile at each other, and Eric suggests they cut their hike short and head back to Atlanta. They don’t get turned around once as they amble back to the construction site and their vehicles. They stop to shake Tobin’s hand and the foreman promises that the cabin will be ready by Christmas even if they have to call in exorcist to chase away any ghosts or demons haunting this site. All three have a good laugh.

When they’re gone Daryl sees a few workers make swishy gestures with their wrists, make comments about “big city fudge packers”. To Tobin’s credit he tells them to keep shit like that to themselves and get the fuck back to work. There’s been too many delays as it is, and at the end of the day money is money no matter where it comes from.

Daryl barely hears him, he’s staring off down the dirt road where Aaron and Eric had driven their respective vehicles, some emotion he can’t name fluttering in his chest.

Spring, Daryl thinks, they’re coming back in the spring. If there are no more delays.

“There ain’t gonna be,” Daryl mutters to himself. He wants the two men to come back as soon as possible.

 

Chapter Text

Summer fades gradually into fall. The framing of the cabin is finished, siding comes up, doors and windows are added. Daryl watches everything with anticipation rather than annoyance; he can actually start to see the type of place this cabin is going to be. Bigger than he thought—a full basement with a wide rec space and two bedrooms; an open floor plan on the main level with a stone fireplace and office alcove; and a sleeping loft above all that. Massive picture windows and a wrap around porch that provide stunning views of the valley and mountains beyond. Looking down from the windows of the sleeping loft is just the right angle for Daryl to see his grave. There’s nothing particularly special about the spot but he’d know it immediately.

Daryl has stopped fucking with the workers for the most part and started listening to them for any mention of Aaron and Eric. He has to endure a lot of talk that reminds him of Merle and the rest of the Savage Sons—guns, drugs, pussy, how queers and blacks are ruining this damn country.

God can you believe that there’s a damn spear-chucker in the fucking White House right now?

Man ain’t safe anywhere, even Blue Ridge has become infested with queers and more keep coming.

The only pediatrician in town is a fucking dyke, how is a man supposed to bring his daughters in to her?

My wife wants to go to that restaurant those two fags opened in town and they charge thirty bucks for a fucking steak, only tourists can afford it, shit ain’t right.

This fag that has us out here wrote some book that my wife won’t shut up about, he was on the TV with that rug-muncher Ellen talking about it…

Wonder which room in this place will be the dildo room, is the basement where they’ll put their dungeon, it’s enough to make a man want to puke.

On and on and fucking on. Not all of the men talk this kind of shit but no one except Tobin tells them to shut up about it.  Daryl’s resolve to behave himself and let them finish is severely tested. Thankfully he’s able to find ways to make the lives of the worst offenders a living hell without delaying things too much. He’s discovered all sorts of ways to ruin their days, he’s learning that electronics are so much easier than anything else to influence. Almost all these men no matter how broke have those little toy phones and cars with automatic locks. Daryl shorts out phones, locks men out of their cars, locks them in their cars, turns on map lights all day until the battery drains. When the jumper cables come out Daryl’s able to fuck with them, damaging the connection and forcing the men to stay for hours, well past dark. He waits until they’re already spooked, stores up a little ball of rage drawn from some of his worst memories and pokes at them with it.

It’s a relief when the main construction is done and a new crew is cycled in to do the finishing details on the house like the wiring and plumbing. By the time the first snows come in December the cabin is not just livable but a dang sight nicer than any place Will Dixon’s boys ever hung their hats. There’s no furniture or decorations or anything like that but the place already seems homey and warm.

December also brings Daryl the first Christmas gift he’s gotten in three decades: Aaron and Eric come back for another visit. They haven’t been up since the spring although Daryl has eavesdropped on some of Tobin’s status reports to Aaron over the months. The day they come there are no construction workers to play it cool around, and Daryl drifts after them goggling at how openly physically affectionate they are. The glimpse he’d gotten of them in the woods was just a taste—the day they visit he witnesses Aaron resting a hand on the back of Eric’s neck and fingers carding through his hair, Eric sliding an arm around Aaron’s waist, fingers tangling together absently, all sorts of kisses from short sweet ones to a few dirtier ones that make Daryl feel like his entire soul is blushing.

Their conversation fascinates him just as much. This visit is mostly so they can get an idea about what type of furniture and decorations they need to buy and where they want to put everything. In the basement they debate on whether to get a pool table or a ping-pong table, then Aaron says, “We can get both,” he looks giddy, “We can afford it.”

“Talk dirty to me, baby,” Eric says.

“We can afford so much,” Aaron continues in a sultry voice, “Matching furniture.”

“Store bought furniture? Not from the flea market or our apartment dumpsters?” Eric says with a gasp, laying his mountain twang accent on thick.

They don’t just talk about furniture, they talk about themselves, their plans for the future, their friends, and Aaron’s book, which sounds fucking fascinating and surprisingly dark from a guy like him. Something about a cult that sounds a bit like those nut jobs who killed themselves in South America the year before Daryl’s own murder, the main character a girl trying to piece together her life after she escapes and the rest of her family doesn’t. Despite this subject matter Eric seems to think the book was hilarious, and Daryl wishes he could read it himself. Wishes he could read anything; alive he’d never seemed to have time for books, now he has all the time in the world. The one he’s coming up here to work on seems just as interesting, something about an axe-murderer riding the rails and killing folks during the Great Depression. Daryl gets excited when he realizes that if Aaron will be writing it here in this cabin he can read it over the man’s shoulder as he works. Read the entire thing, not just a chapter or two.

They talk about the plans they have with their friends, and Daryl can’t decide if he wants to meet them all or if he’s jealous. He’s only had Aaron and Eric to himself for a few hours and already dislikes the idea of having to share them.

“We need to have everyone up for Fourth of July,” Aaron says, “Maggie and Glenn can stay in one of the basement rooms, Sasha and Rosita in the other…”

“Maggie will want to bring Jesus,” Eric says.

“We can put him on the couch,” Aaron says.

Eric wrinkles his nose, “What if he and Fucking Alex are in one of their ‘on again’ phases?”

“Fucking Alex can stay outside in a tent,” Aaron says, “Or in the overnight shelter on the Trail.”

“Good call, babe,” Eric says, “Hopefully we won’t have to worry, this current ‘off again’ phase is looking like it’s permanent.”

Aaron rolls his eyes, “How many times have we all thought that? I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“What can I say, I’m an eternal optimist,” Eric replies.

Apparently this group of friends used to come up from Atlanta during college breaks and hike the Trail, they’d even stayed in the overnight shelter a few times. Daryl is floored; he searches his brain trying to think when this could be and how he missed them. Because obviously he had; he can’t remember every single group of hikers he’s spied on but knows he’ll remember Aaron’s smile an Eric’s faint mountain twang a hundred years from now.

Daryl looks at the two men and tries to tries to think. Aaron and Eric can’t be much older or younger than thirty; their college years would’ve been anywhere from ten to fifteen years ago, what the hell had Daryl been up to? It’s almost impossible figure out due to how much his own sense of time is screwed up; the days and seasons have a way of running together. While he sees something new and beautiful in this valley almost every hour it can be hard to put things in order, and all bets are off if he’s switched off. He has only the vaguest estimates of how long he’s gone—before he checks out he makes a point to take note of certain landmarks in the area around his grave. If he comes back and the little sapling has sprung into a full-fledged tree it’s been years; if he comes back and the carcass of a possum hasn’t rotted or been carried away it’s been days, and so on.

The last time he’d switched off had been one of his long ones. It was brought on after spying on two hikers walking the Trail, just fucking kids, but were talking about how they’d be  going to go to fight in Iraq when this trip was over. Daryl had only the vaguest notion of what this war was about and he didn’t care; all he cared about was that it made him think of Merle before he went off to ’Nam, then the court martial, then the dishonorable discharge. Even worse than those memories were the ones from far fucking earlier of Will Dixon coming back home after fighting the Japs. Daryl’s first clear memory of his father is of a strange, angry man walking into their house and being immediately shoved into his arms by his Mama, This is your Daddy, say hello, can you tell Daddy you’re so glad to meet him?

Less than an hour after meeting Will Dixon for the first time Daryl witnessed him taking a strap to Mama and Merle both. Less than a week after Will took the strap to Daryl and landed several licks in before Mama got in the way. Before she died she used to tell him that Daddy weren’t like this before the war, and Daryl had believed her until Merle went to ’Nam. After that Daryl thought there must have always been something ugly buried in Will Dixon that war had unearthed rather than created.

Daryl watched the two kids discuss boot camp and killing as many camel jockeys they could with these memories swirling around in his head. Right then the world seemed too ugly for him to stand a minute longer, no amount of beauty found in his peaceful valley could hold a candle to it. When he switched off it was one of only two times since his death that he hoped he would never come back.

As he watches Aaron and Eric together he muses that’s something he will never think again. Worth coming back a hundred times to see two men laugh and be happy and stare at each other with love. Two men who despite their differences from him were nothing like he’d imagined queers to be—not mincing and prancing around talking about being hair dressers or the opera or fucking whatever. They talked about camping with their friends and getting rowdy drunk at bars and how Aaron wants to try building a motorcycle from scrap and they didn’t seem soft except with each other.

Daryl doesn’t think that even if he’d been born later he could’ve ever had something like this, but knowing it exists is enough. Getting to watch the two of them laugh and be happy without a trace of shame. As the two men are leaving for the day Aaron grabs Eric, dips him back like the cover a romance novel, and gives him a deep kiss.

“Stop, you damned cornball,” Eric laughs. In response Aaron swings him down again, and Eric’s laughter dies, his face goes white, and he lets out a pained gasp. Aaron straightens him up immediately, his own good humor fading,

“Babe? You alright?”

Eric twists an arm behind him and massages a spot just beneath his shoulder blade, “It’s that stupid muscle I pulled.”

Aaron frowns, “You said it’d gotten better—“

“It did,” Eric says. He draws in a few shaky breaths, “Ok, I’m feeling ok. Just another side effect of turning thirty, like getting hangovers and only being able to fuck you once a night—”

“You pulled that muscle a month ago,” Aaron says, “If it’s still hurting you should probably see a doctor.”

Eric is quiet for a minute before his smile returns, “Babe!” he says, sounding excited, “I was going to say there’s no way I could get a doctor’s appointment before Christmas and besides it’s a waste of money, but guess what?”

“What?” Aaron says, not smiling and brow furrowed with worry.

“I can see any doctor that has an opening, no matter what the cost,” Eric says in an excited whisper, “Because we can afford it.”

Aaron smiles then.

*******************

A month later the furniture starts arriving. Daryl thrums with excitement, expecting Aaron and Eric to return to tell the movers where to put it all. To his disappointment neither man shows up in person, the movers have only written instructions that they grumble darkly over.

“Fucking queers better not say shit about us doing it wrong if they ain’t going to bother showing up,” one of the movers says. Daryl shorts out the taillights on their van in retaliation. With any luck they won’t notice until a pig pulls them over and slaps them with a ticket, maybe even a pig in a pissy enough mood to search the van and find the bag of reefer in the glove box. It’s a very satisfying thought.

*******

Fall is Daryl’s favorite season in death just as it was in life. Winter is a close second, something very different than life. Death has in fact swapped winter and summer in his list of preferences. The nights are longer; one of the curious facts of his death is that at night he just feels more awake and—for want of a better word—alive. There is less life tugging at him, he loves his animals and the hikers but by the time fall and winter have come it’s too much, overstimulating to the point of pain. Winter is like a swim in cold water after a hard day working outside, and he always feels just a little grumpy when the snow melts and tender green shoots start springing to life.

Not this time. As soon as the first sign of spring comes Daryl plants himself at the cabin, refusing to go out of sight. He knows he’s being overcautious and literally can’t miss Aaron and Eric when they show up—this close to his grave he’d know it immediately no matter how far away he is—and doesn’t give a shit. He wonders how long he’ll have to wait; they talked about “spring” and having friends for the Fourth, Daryl’s looking at anywhere from March to May. He obviously hopes it’s sooner rather than later. That spring is the longest one of his entire death. Keeping count of the days is difficult when a person is dead and never really sleeps. He considers switching off—surely he’ll wake up as soon as Aaron and Eric come back—but doesn’t want to risk it. Besides, switching off isn’t entirely an at will thing—it only comes when he wants it but it doesn’t always come—and he’s too nervous and excited.

The days crawl past and Daryl’s impatience increases but it’s not until the last of the spring dogwood petals fall and the mountain laurels start blooming that he starts to truly worry. It’s May, on the tale end of what can safely be called “spring”, and the only sign of life at Aaron and Eric’s cabin is when a caretaker—a thin woman with closely cropped gray hair— comes to check in on the place. She does a little yard work and dusts, turning on the faucets and testing the power. It didn’t take her long—the first time she came Daryl got exciting, hoping it meant she was preparing the cabin for habitation but weeks pass, then an entire month, and she comes back to repeat the process. Nothing but routine maintenance so the place doesn’t just collapse to the ground. The furniture sits under plastic sheets, the boxes of dishes delivered at the same time as the furniture sit in the kitchen gathering dust, and Daryl roams the house alone.

He doesn’t start to feel that something terrible has happened until he sees the eerie blue flashes of Ghost Fireflies in the evening. High summer and Aaron and Eric still don’t come. The caretaker returns, goes through her routine, and Daryl follows her restlessly until she leaves again.

He makes occasional trips to the Trail to spy on hikers staying at the overnight shelter and they all annoy the living shit out of him. The couples all consist of one man and one woman, none of the groups sound as interesting as Aaron and Eric’s friends.

When the fall comes he starts lashing out at them, angry that they’re not the people he wants to see. Angry that they show up for a night and leave, giving Daryl tantalizing glimpses of lives lead far away, the moment Daryl sees them only a meaningless fraction. He even starts harassing solitary hikers until he frightens a middle-aged woman so badly she runs half naked from the shelter clutching her chest as though having a heart attack. She comes back for her pack but stays outside on the trail all night, eyes wide and terrified. It’s like a bucketful of ice water to the face, snapping him out of it. He’s being a dick and he realizes he could truly hurt or kill someone.

He avoids the trail entirely after that.

When the first snowflakes start to fall nearly an entire year after Daryl saw them last he decides Aaron and Eric are never coming back. Something has happened; Aaron’s money ran out or they were in a car accident or broke up or just decided not to live up here anymore. Daryl will never see them again, and the realization is bitter. He feels stupid for getting his hopes up, for allowing himself to think he’d get the barest reflection of the two men’s joy. He decides to take one more pass around the valley, maybe stop along the Trail for one last look, and switch off if he can.

Daryl is drifting down the ridge toward his grave when he sees lights in the distance on the little dirt road that leads up to the cabin. Ain’t them, Daryl thinks even as his hopes rise. He drifts back toward the cabin helplessly. Ain't them, Daryl thinks again. If they were coming someone—the little gray haired housekeeper, a maintenance guy—would’ve opened up the cabin. Removed the plastic, put sheets on the bed, filled up the shed with wood for the fire.

The lights keep coming, growing brighter and brighter through the trees, until a Jeep that is not quite as shiny and new as it had been even last winter pulls up in front of the cabin and the driver cuts the lights. There’s silence where Daryl can hear the sound of the engine ticking as it cools. The driver doesn’t move, and Daryl drifts to take a look. Daryl’s heart leaps when he sees the top of Aaron’s curly head, joy that is as foreign as it is fierce flooding through him.

They came back, he thinks, a smile stretching across his face that vanishes almost as soon as it forms. Aaron is the only person in the jeep, he’s slumped over the steering wheel, face buried in his arms and shoulders shaking silently. When he finally lifts his head Daryl thinks for a moment he made a mistake, this isn’t Aaron, this is some drifter stopping for the night. Then Aaron steps out of the car, his long legs and and lean figure unmistakable.

The guy standing in front of him is almost unrecognizable as the smiling, laughing figure Daryl saw last winter. His pleasing bit of scruff has morphed into a beard that is swallowing his face, he’s lost at least fifteen pounds, and he walks slowly with his shoulders stooped. He has a sleeping bag under one arm and is dragging one of those little rolling suitcases up the steps inside the cabin. Daryl follows, something twisting in his guts. No, he thinks, no. Any doubts as to what happened are gone when Aaron clicks on the lights and blinks around at the empty cabin with owlish eyes. He looks like he hasn’t slept since Daryl last saw him—eyes bloodshot and dark circles beneath them.

Aaron sits down on the couch in front of the empty fireplace without even bothering to remove the plastic tarp covering it. Daryl can see puffs his breath visible in the air as he just sits there in silence. After a bit Daryl sits down next to him and has never felt more useless in life or in death than he does at that moment.

There’s a buzz coming from Aaron’s jacket pocket, then another. Aaron mechanically fishes a sleek black rectangle out of his pocket. There’s a silver logo of an apple on one side and a shiny screen on the other. When Aaron touches the surface it lights up and Daryl blinks, the thing in his hand looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, light-years ahead of the little toy phones he’s seen some of the construction crew use or the little boxes they play music on. The glowing screen has rows of little icons, and Aaron taps one that is green with a white speech bubble.

25 messages from: Maggie Rhee.

Aaron taps the screen again, and the messages come up. Daryl feels a little dizzy, shocked into forgetting everything except for this little piece of magic Aaron handles so casually. 

Aaron, we’re at the apartment but we don’t see you. Let us in.

Aaron? Are you home?

Did you forget we were coming over? It’s ok if you want to reschedule or you changed your mind about cleaning out Eric’s things. I know this is hard. Please call me.

Messages sent December 3rd.

Aaron scrolls down quickly and Daryl only gets flashes of more messages along this vein. When he gets to the end Daryl reads:

AARON RALEIGH PICK UP YOUR FUCKING PHONE OR I’M SHOVING IT UP YOUR ASS WHEN I GET AHOLD OF YOU

Aaron goes back to the main message menu, and Daryl sees there are more unread messages.

8 messages from: Glenn Rhee.

11 messages from: Rosita Espinosa

4 messages from: Sasha Williams

7 messages from: Tara Chambler

1 message from: Jesus.

Aaron taps on a little plus mark and Daryl reads “compose new group text”.  A little keyboard appears, the letters so small Daryl has no idea how Aaron manages to quickly tap out:

I’m fine everyone. Just need to be alone. Sorry to worry you.

He taps “send” then pushes the button on the side of his sleek little black rectangle that Daryl can’t believe is a phone and the screen goes black.

“Fuck, man,” Daryl says, even though Aaron can’t hear him and doesn’t know he’s there, “I’m sorry as all hell.” His own voice is thick with sorrow. He puts a hand on the other man’s shoulder and he can feel it just like when he reached for Merle all those years ago. Just like all those years ago it’s not mutual; Aaron takes no notice of him at all, looking for every bit as much like a ghost as Daryl is himself.

Chapter Text

Aaron is staring blankly at his computer screen two weeks later and Daryl is looking over his shoulder when he senses that another living person has entered his haunt.

Although “senses” is too mild a word for what happens. He always feels the living when they enter his demesne (one of the new words Daryl has learned by reading over Aaron’s shoulder) but it’s never like this. Usually it’s a tickling on the back of his neck and a tug at his gut, an itch between his shoulder blades that he just can’t scratch. This feeling is like a steel-toed boot smashing through his skull or a brick to the face. He only feels the living this strongly when they’re standing right on top of his grave but he knows whoever is here has only just entered Daryl’s range.

“Someone’s here,” Daryl says uneasily. Aaron, obviously, does not react to this, just keeps staring at his computer screen. Not a blank screen tonight as it has been most nights, but instead looking at pictures of old newspaper articles. The current one is from 1924 and screams out, ENTIRE FAMILY SLAIN! FIEND STILL AT LARGE! It’s only one of dozens of such articles Aaron has been reading since before lunchtime. Not that Aaron had lunch, he’s been drinking steadily since he woke up and reading articles about axe murders that happened before even Daryl was born. Occasionally Aaron will pull up a blank document that has “Chapter 1 (??)” and nothing else written.

And of course Daryl has been reading about fucking axe murders along with him. All the ones Aaron’s been reading about happened in isolated spots in rural areas, and for the first time in more than thirty years Daryl has the honest-to-God heebie jeebies. Now there’s someone here, and Aaron is just staring at his glowing screen that still boggles Daryl’s mind whenever he sees it, how much it can do. It has pictures and word processors (he’d vaguely imagined Aaron sat in front of a typewriter before, but everything is inside this skinny little thing that looks like it’d snap in two if you breathed on it wrong)

“Someone’s here,” Daryl repeats. He gets up and starts to pace, reluctant to leave Aaron’s side. Aaron just sighs, clicks the little pad below the keyboard and the article vanishes. Then he pulls up the screen that reads “videos”. Daryl holds his non-existent breath; there are only two types of videos Aaron has watched these past two weeks. Since he’s been drinking and trying to work instead of hitting the reefer Daryl guesses it’s going to be one of the seemingly endless clips of Eric. And seriously, how the fuck do they all fit in that thing? Daryl had only seen computers in the movies before now, they were always huge and even in the movies none of them could do half the shit Aaron’s little machine can. Or his shiny black rectangle that Daryl now knows is definitely a phone can.

Daryl’s guess about the video subject matter is correct to his relief. It’s a video of Eric standing in front of swinging glass doors leading into an old building. A doorman is standing patiently behind him, and Aaron is narrating, “Babe, show people what a budget hotel in Manhattan looks like.”

“Well, Aaron, as you can see it’s pretty nice on the outside, and on the inside you can see the lobby that Wes Anderson puked out after a night rolling Molly—tee em a soon-to-be-famous writer I know—“

“Not one of his best efforts,” Aaron interrupts.

Daryl’s seen this one before, Eric giving a tour of their little hotel that before Daryl would’ve said was definitely fucking haunted when he was alive but now just looks a little old. Going up the elevator that was controlled by an actual guy in a uniform who asked, What floor?. Showing off their “Deluxe Ship’s Berth” room that is the size of a coffin with a bed that’s definitely too short for Aaron’s long legs. Taking the elevator up to the rooftop bar that looks out over what Daryl supposes is New York (another thing he’s only seen in the movies) and kissing in the sunset.

Aaron doesn’t cry when he watches these videos, just looks at them with such complete exhaustion Daryl wonders how he’s able to hold his head upright.

When Aaron smokes weed he watches porn and jacks off. Aside from trips to the can this is the only time Daryl leaves his side. The first time it happened Daryl was so stunned he just sat there rooted to the spot, eyes wide. Two guys who were fucking; guys with muscles and hairy chests, one bent over a table. Daryl had never let himself look at gay porn, the advertisements for men’s underwear in the Sears’ Catalog was as far as he ever went. This video wasn’t particularly sexy, but it could’ve just been the way Aaron stared at it dead-eyed for a few minutes before mechanically undoing his belt.

Daryl is snapped out of this thought with a full body shudder. Someone is getting closer and closer to his grave with all the subtlety of a full marching band that’s also on fire. Aaron’s not expecting company; he hasn’t called or sent out any other message to the group of friends that keep blowing up his phone other than a single, I really just need to be alone right now. Please don’t worry, a week ago. The only visitor he’s received is Carol (Daryl finally has a name for the caretaker he’s followed around for several months). She also came out only once; after Aaron called her the morning after he arrived and asked if she’d pick him up some groceries. He’d pay for her time, obviously, as well as the groceries. It wasn’t until that moment that Daryl realized that Aaron hadn’t brought anything with him to eat. His rolling suitcase had a few changes of clothes, his little silver computer, a comically huge bag of reefer, and a framed photograph of him with Eric that he carefully placed above the fireplace the first morning.

Carol’s grocery delivery assured Daryl that Aaron wouldn’t starve at least—she showed up with enough shit in her old beater to feed an army for the next month—but she’d also been the one to bring the bottles of Jim Beam that Aaron has been throwing back like water since he’s been here. She seemed reluctant to hand it over but nothing much she could do, Aaron’d asked for it and he was paying for it. And he was sure as hell fucking drinking it.

Daryl looks at Aaron, who is obviously unaware of his agitation. The hotel video has reached its end and he’s rewound it to the start to watch over again. Aaron’s never looked more helpless and vulnerable to Daryl then he does in that moment. The guy’s out here completely alone without so much as pistol (Daryl’s really fucking glad all the black bears are asleep for the winter, Aaron’s occasional treks through the valley are nerve-wracking enough. The best Daryl can say is that at least the guy knows not to go out when he’s drunk or high).

Daryl’s fists clench. Times haven’t changed so much that the nearby towns haven’t gossiped about their being a famous, rich writer up here in his fancy cabin by himself. A rich writer who’s also a queer; which in of itself is enough for some people to want to stomp in his head. Times can’t have changed much in that regard either.

Aaron living here without Eric is nothing at all what Daryl had fantasized about. Seeing him suffer this much and being able to do absolutely fuck all about it is some of the hardest shit Daryl’s had to cope with since his death. Yet despite all that some part of Daryl is happier than he’s ever been just having the Aaron here. Some nights Daryl sits down next to him on the couch while he's reading and imagines they’re two friends who just don’t feel like talking. It’s nice, even if Aaron’s not really paying attention and doesn’t know he’s not alone. Nice to sit next to a guy and know that if they could talk he wouldn’t care that Daryl was a queer. Might care about some of Daryl’s other shit, but not that. A guy that if Daryl’s brief encounter with him while he was happy and the countless videos he’s watched over his shoulder are any indication is warm and kind and good. 

Daryl’s fist clench again as savage protectiveness flows through him. Any motherfucker who wants to hurt Aaron will have to go through Daryl first; and in this he is not completely useless. He loads up every ugly memory he has like arrows in a quiver and bursts out of the cabin, hurtling down the dirt road that leads down to county road just out of his range. He goes all out guns a’blazin’ and fixing for a fight, so it’s a little anticlimactic when he reaches the figure hiking up the dirt road.

The guy—Daryl’s sure it’s a guy even though his face is covered with a scarf and he’s wearing so many layers under his bulky coat his figure can’t be made out—is small. A few inches shorter than Daryl. He’s walking up the dirt path toward Aaron and Eric’s cabin openly, not trying to be sneaky or cautious. His boots crunch through the snow at a steady pace, he doesn’t look over his shoulder or do anything that would arouse an observer’s suspicions. He has a backpack slung over his shoulders but no other gear or weapons, and Daryl hesitates. He could just be someone who broke down and saw the lights of the cabin off in the distance.

Daryl doesn’t go after him, doesn’t try fucking with the straps of his pack or the laces of his boots, doesn’t fling bitter bits of old memories his way, but he doesn’t completely relax around the guy either. Daryl follows him the rest of the way to Aaron’s cabin, watching him with suspicion. “He ain’t alone up here, no matter what you think,” Daryl snarls, “So if you’re up to no good you best head back where you came from.”

The guy’s stride falters as Daryl speaks, they’ve reached the cabin and the guy sees the flickering lights and Aaron’s Jeep. He goes to the Jeep and brushes some of the snow from the windows (Aaron hasn’t moved it in two weeks) and peers inside, hesitates again, then continues to the house where he stops yet again, takes in a deep breath, and knocks on the door bold as brass.

Daryl doesn’t trust this guy enough yet to want to take his eyes off of him but he needs to check on Aaron. He drifts past the guy glaring daggers. Inside he finds Aaron sitting straight up at his desk, computer snapped shut and blinking at the door. He looks startled; like Daryl suspected he wasn’t planning on company. There’s another knock and Aaron looks around before grabbing the bottle of whisky that’s almost empty, testing its weight, then creepy cautiously toward the door.

“I got yer back, man,” Daryl mutters.

“Aaron?” a voice calls through the door, “I know you’re in there, and you know that I can pick this lock if I have to.”

The tension drains out of Aaron’s shoulders, and instead of wary he just looks bewildered. “Jesus?” he says, opening the door as Daryl crowds in behind him.

Light spills on the guy figure, he pulls down the scarf, and Daryl gets a good look at his face for the first time. He smiles a very sad smile at Aaron, “Visit from Jesus just in time for Christmas. How many people can say that?”

Aaron doesn’t smile back. He still looks confused but is starting to look a little pissed off as well, “What are you doing here?”

Jesus shakes some of the snow that has started to fall out of his hair, “Why are any of us ‘here’? Where exactly is here, or there? What’s the difference?”

Daryl barely registers this line of bullshit and barely remembers to be wary or cautious. Ever since the guy pulled down his scarf Daryl’s mind has been unable to move past just how straight up fucking beautiful this guy is. A neat beard, a generous mouth with full lips that Merle would’ve described as DSL—dick sucking lips—if they’d been on a woman. He has wide eyes an unusual shade that Daryl can’t tell is blue or green in this light.

Aaron is having no such problems, “Here being my doorstep.”

“Oh, that here,” Jesus says, “Take a guess.”

“I told everyone I wanted to be left alone,” Aaron says.

“Tough shit,” Jesus replies, some of his dreamy hippie smile fading, “Everyone’s worried sick, you just took off on the day we were all supposed to…” his voice falters and he looks away for a brief moment, “When we knew you were upset.”

Aaron looks like the kind of angry a man gets when he’s guilty and wants to hide it, “I’m an adult. If I need to get out of town for a bit to get my head together so I can actually work I don’t need anyone’s permission. Not Maggie or Glenn’s, not Tara’s, not Sasha or Rosita’s, not Eugene’s, and not fucking yours.”

Jesus takes in a deep breath, “You don’t need permission, but you should know better than to think you can take off without us making sure you’re ok.”

“Why’d everyone send you?”

“I’m the only one not neck deep in family drama. ’Tis the season for Rosita’s homophobic dad to figure out after five years that Sasha’s more than just a roommate; for Mama and Papa Rhee to make the trek down from Michigan because Maggie’s ready to pop and has been having something called Braxton Hicks contraction—which for the record are terrifying beyond all imagining; and Tara’s dad to take a turn for the worse while her sister and her evil fucking brother-in-law are in town.”

“What about Eugene?” Aaron asks after a moment of silence.

“Eugene is Eugene.”

“Fair enough,” Aaron says, shoulders slumping. “Look, Jesus, I’m sorry you came all this way—“

“If you don’t let me in I’ll break in,” Jesus answers, “Also my car wouldn’t make it up this dirt road so I left it at the bottom of the hill and walked the last bit. In the snow. At least take me back in the Jeep.”

Daryl has to hand it to this guy, that was sneaky as fuck. Anyone with eyes can see that Aaron is slurring his words and is in no shape to drive even down to wherever Jesus left his car, and even with their brief acquaintance Daryl knows that Aaron isn’t the sort of man who will turn a friend away into the middle of the woods at night.

Still, he hovers menacingly behind Aaron as he moves aside to let Jesus come in. “You leave ‘im be if he asks, y’hear?”

“This is just a welfare check,” Jesus says, looking around at the state of the cabin, brow furrowed with worry, “I’ll leave you be when I’m satisfied you have everything you need and aren’t getting drunk and roaming the woods at night freezing to death or breaking your neck.”

Daryl feels a chill at Jesus’ choice of words, leave you be. He sounded like he was responding to something Aaron said and it phrasing was a coincidence, but Aaron had been tight-lipped since letting Jesus walk in.

“Yeah, I’d appreciate if that was tomorrow morning once I’ve sobered of enough to drop you off.” Aaron gestures around,  “You can sleep down here on one of the couches. Hope you brought a sleeping bag, the heating’s not great and I don’t have blankets.”

“I’ll manage. Have you had anything to eat today?”

“Yes,” Aaron says.

“No,” Daryl snaps, “You ain’t had nothin’ since breakfast.”

“Yeah,” Jesus says, “Forgive me if I’m skeptical. You look like you haven’t eaten since…you haven’t eaten in a while. Have you got anything quick an easy?” His brow wrinkles again with worry as he moves through the open main floor to the kitchen. Aaron had Carol deliver groceries but had forgotten to request shit like dish soap, rags, and towels. He’s been taking pots, pans, and dishes out of the unopened boxes of new kitchenware as he needs it, rinsing out what he can, and leaving the rest piled by the sink. Jesus takes in the mess and turns to Aaron, eyebrows raised.

“I haven’t had a chance to get into town,” Aaron mutters, “I’ve been working. That’s what I bought this place for.”

Jesus eyes fall then to the coffee table that still has a plastic sheet cover. Aaron’s absurdly big bag of reefer is sitting out next to an ashtray overflowing with roaches, then at the half empty bottle of whiskey still clenched in Aaron’s fist. He raises his eyebrows again.

“Fuck you, Jesus,” Aaron snarls, “Don’t you dare judge me for this. Not after some of the shit I saw go down your throat and up your nose in college—”

“I’m not judging you for anything,” Jesus says quietly, “I get it. I’m just worried about you. This isn’t you.”

Aaron looks even angrier then, “Yeah, well what is me? Everyone’s problem-solver? You think I didn’t notice what you did back there? ‘Oh Aaron, all our friends are in trouble, come back and fix everything or you’ll feel guilty.’ I can’t be the group therapist right now.”

“No one’s asking you to be,” Jesus says, “We’re asking for you to let us look after you for once. I wasn’t trying to guilt you…” he pauses and sighs, “Well, not with that. I totally planned the car thing. I just wanted…I just wanted you to know why it took so long for one of us to come check on you.”

“I didn’t ask anyone to come check on me, I asked for the opposite,” Aaron says. There’s a vein pulsing in his forehead. Every calm word from Jesus just seems to be pissing him off even more, and lord help him, but Daryl gets it. He gets why Aaron’s pissy—who is this Jesus guy to barge and just start telling him how to grieve?

Is that really what’s pissing you off, Darlina?

Fuck, Daryl hasn’t heard his brother’s voice in his head. Death has granted him with enough self-awareness to know that half the time he hears that voice it’s telling him something he doesn’t want to face. Fact is he’s pissed that this guy can barge in and make sure Aaron eats and doesn’t break his fool neck while hiking and a dozen other things and Daryl can’t.

“Well,” Jesus says, “I’m here anyway. And I’m not leaving until I’ve made you dinner and helped you clean this place up. I’m going to give Maggie a call, do you have somewhere private, or do you want us to talk about you to your face?”

“Downstairs in the rec room, or outside is probably warmer.”

“Outside it is then,” Jesus replies, “I want to repeat that if you’re tempted to lock me out I’ll go in through a window or pick the lock.”

“Do whatever you want,” Aaron mutters, and head back to his desk where his little silver computer is setting, “I’m going to try and get some work I was doing before I was interrupted done.”

***************************

“How’s he doing?” a woman’s voice—Maggie’s, presumably—asks from the tinny speakers of Jesus’ phone. Daryl followed him outside after only the briefest of hesitation, curiosity about what Jesus had to report overwhelming him.

“Not great,” Jesus replies, “Not worst case scenario, but not great. Self-medicating, but since this is Aaron and he’s a massive nerd it’s just booze and grass. Nothing hard, I don’t think.”

“Ask Dad about ‘just booze’ sometime,” Maggie says sharply, “Just because you haven’t seen anything doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some of Eric’s leftover dilaudid or morphine stashed away somewhere—“

“He ain’t got nothing like that,” Daryl mutters, “Just booze and grass and porn.” He thinks Jesus was trying to make a joke to lighten the mood but Daryl’s own Daddy was another one who could’ve educated the guy on ‘just’ booze. He doesn’t find it funny.

“I don’t think there’s anything like that here,” Jesus says, voice sounding far away, “But I’ll look, ok?” He gives a tired sigh, “This was bound to happen, you know. He’s been acting like everything’s fine since the funeral. Just keeps chugging along, for months. Something had to give.”

“Well, see what you can do to talk him into coming back.”

Jesus doesn’t reply for a moment, “If I think that’s what’s best I will. I might just help him make this place comfortable and let him come back when he’s ready.”

Maggie lets out a disapproving noise, “He doesn’t need to be up in the middle of nowhere all alone. This is gonna be his first Christmas without Eric, he needs to be with people who love him.”

“He’s been with friends since March and he still had a breakdown,” Jesus says, “You know how Aaron is, just wants to take care of everyone else. Mr. Problem Solver. Maybe that’s why he kept acting like everything’s fine, felt like he had to.”

It’s Maggie’s turn to be quiet, “Sounds kinda like someone else I know,” she finally says, “Look, don’t forget to take care of yourself, I know this can’t be easy for you. Just be careful, ok?”

“I always am,” Jesus says, smiling a fond smile, “Look Big Sis, don’t worry too much, ok? Don’t want the little tater tot to come early, needs to marinate a bit longer.”

“I am so over being pregnant,” Maggie mutters, “Ok, Jesus, I know you’ve got things to do. Love you.”

“Love you too,” Jesus says, giving another fond little smile that fades when he hangs up and turns back toward the house.

Daryl drifts after him, studying the man’s face thoughtfully. He’s not sure if he’s glad this Jesus guy is here, but he’s starting to trust that he’ll do by right by Aaron at least.

Chapter Text

Jesus, Daryl quickly learns, lives up to the nickname. He digs out the last two bowls in Aaron’s boxes, rinses them out, and uses them to heat up a few cans of soup in the microwave. All the while Aaron scowls at him and answers any questions in a way that ranges from “bit of a jerk” to “huge fucking asshole”. Jesus doesn’t lose his cool once.

“Do you have a notebook and a pen?”

“No, I just write for a living, why on earth would you think I’d have notebooks and pens lying around?”

“May I please use some, then?”

“What for?”

“Want to write a list of things you need.”

“I can help you out. Number one: to be left alone. Number two: new friends who respect my wishes and don’t barge in when I want to be left alone.”

“I’m never going to remember all that plus everything else, the pen and paper would be helpful.”

Aaron’s drunk plus being a dick doesn’t come naturally to him so he’s quickly worn out by Jesus refusing to give him the fight he’s so clearly spoiling for. After he finishes his soup he tells Jesus again that the heating’s not great and he hopes he likes the couch. Jesus just repeats that he’ll manage. Aaron climbs up the steps to the sleeping loft and Jesus’ eyes follow him, that worried wrinkle on his brows. After Aaron’s gone to bed Jesus gets up and searches the cabin in a businesslike way, rifling through the cupboards down to places like the gap between the fridge and the wall.

“I told you,” Daryl mutters, “he ain’t got none of that shit.”

It might just be Daryl’s imagination, but Jesus doesn’t seem to look as hard as he was before Daryl spoke. Just a cursory pass through the downstairs rec room, the bathrooms, and through the kitchen again. As he searches he scribbles notes on the pad Aaron provided him before ascending to his sleeping loft. Daryl reads over his shoulder:

5 sets linens, 2 queen 1 twin, 2 king (confirm last w/Aaron)

7 Towels & Washcloths

undershirts/socks/boxers/sweats

Razor/shaving kit

Shampoo/soap

Deodorant!

Toothpaste/brush/mouthwash

Laundry detergent

Dish soap/sponges/steel wool

Groceries (esp fruit/veg)

After Jesus completes his circuit of the house he heads to Aaron’s couch, pausing when he catches sight of Aaron’s magic computer on the desk. Jesus hesitates, glances up at the dark sleeping loft, then clicks it open. Daryl scowls at him, no way in hell Aaron wants Jesus or anyone else snooping on his machine. There’s a little box that asks for a password. Daryl’s not sure exactly what it is, Aaron types too fast and all that come up are little asterisks. Jesus’ fingers tap against the keyboard thoughtfully before he quickly types. He’s informed that the password is incorrect. He runs his fingers slowly over the keys again before tapping out a second password.

“Motherfucker!” Daryl blurts out when this one turns out to be correct. Daryl watches as Jesus starts clicking around on the little icons, the pointer hovering over videos, and Daryl bristles.

Hey asshole,” Daryl snaps, “That shit’s private, you don’t gotta snoop in there.”

He quickly debates throwing a memory or feeling Jesus’ way, something truly ugly. Before he comes to a decision Jesus throws a guilty look back toward the sleeping loft and closes the computer back up. Then he goes to stretch out on the couch. He hasn’t thought to bring a sleeping bag so he uses his oversized coat as a blanket. Once he seems to have settled for the night Daryl drifts up to check on Aaron. He’s passed out and snoring a little, a bit of drool soaking into the pillow. After a few minutes later Daryl drifts down to keep an eye on Jesus. Daryl does this several times during the night—watches Aaron for a bit, then goes to watch Jesus. The latter doesn’t sleep for a long time, every time Daryl checks on him for the first couple of hours his eyes are glittering at the ceiling or he’s fiddling around on his own little magic phone. Just before dawn Daryl checks on him again and he’s finally out.

Jesus still wakes up hours before Aaron does. He grabs the keys to Aaron’s Jeep without so much as a by-your-leave and heads out. He’s gone for hours but he’s still back before Aaron wakes up. Jesus brings in armload after armload of shit from the Jeep. Everything on his list and some odds and ends he must’ve thought’ve on the way. Aaron comes down during this process and scowls at him.

When Jesus sees him he says, “No Aaron, it wasn’t a nightmare. You really are stuck with me for the next few days.”

“What’s all this?”

“Stuff you were missing. Towels, bedding, et cetera.”

“I can pick out my own shit. I don’t need—“

“I left the receipts, if you hate everything return it. Or donate to your very nice caretaker’s church, I met her when I was out. Don’t worry about paying me back.”

“I’ll write you a check.”

“Wow, you still own a checkbook? Nerd.”

Like the previous evening Aaron just seems to get pissy with every display of kindness Jesus shows him. He watches as Jesus starts putting things away and says, “I’ll do that later. If you head out now you’ll be back to Atlanta by dark.”

“You and I both know not going to do this later, and I told you I’m not leaving until I’m satisfied you’re ok up here.”

“I could call the police,” Aaron mutters.

“You could also stab me with one of those butcher knives but I’m not worried about you doing that one either.”

After scowling at him a moment longer Aaron starts helping Jesus put things away. Jesus face has a kind, neutral expression but Daryl still feels like he gets a hint of smugness from the guy. Doesn’t last long; once everything’s put away and Jesus starts tackling the dishes Aaron goes for one of his bottles of whiskey.

“Not a fucking word,” he mutters when Jesus opens his mouth, “Like I said you’re the last person who gets to judge me.”

Jesus’ lips press into a thin line and he says, “Just think you should eat something first.”

“And I just think you should go home. I’m fine.

Jesus doesn’t dignify that with a response, just goes back to the dishes. “Do you mind if I listen to music while I do this?”

“Yes,” Aaron says, heading back to where his computer is, “I can’t concentrate as it is with you banging around in there. And Jesus?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t fucking touch my computer again, or I will call the police.”

Jesus pauses, the lines in his back tense, “I thought you were asleep.”

“I was,” Aaron says, “I just guessed that you went snooping around. Correctly, it seems. How’d you guess the password?”

Jesus turns off the water in the sink, dries his hands, and walks over to Aaron’s desk. He leans against it with his arms folded. “You’re right, that was out of line. I’m sorry. If it helps I realized that about ten seconds into it and left.”

“It doesn’t.”

“Well, I am sorry. It was wrong and I shouldn’t have had done it.” Jesus hesitates, “Look, I know you want to be left alone. I respect that, I really do. But surely you understand why we’re all worried.”

“I’m not going to melodramatically slash my wrists or anything.”

“But you are doing self-destructive shit like going into the middle of nowhere binge drinking and smoking weed. Neither of which I’m judging you for, but do it properly. Take a break to drink water and eat something, you’ll feel better.”

“Well I suppose you’d know,” Aaron mutters.

It goes on in this vein for the entire day, and Daryl starts thinking that Jesus should just give in and give Aaron the fight he so obviously wants. Knock each other down and get it over with. Instead he just responds to Aaron’s attempt at dickery with patience and the occasional sarcasm. There’s something almost provoking about it, Daryl starts wondering what’ll take to get this guy to snap.

He doesn’t find out until the day’s almost over. Jesus has scrubbed and dried Aaron’s filthy dishes, done a load of laundry, and tossed a frozen pizza into the oven. Aaron’s been drinking steadily the entire time. He picks at his food, sulking. He hasn’t said much during dinner, and Daryl starts thinking maybe Jesus’ calm patience has worn him into submission.

Jesus is cleaning up their dinner when Aaron asks how much longer he’s going to be here.

“I’ll reassess the situation in the morning,” Jesus says, “See if there’s anything else I need to do for you, then let you be. It’d be nice if you’d let me know.”

“I don’t need anything else,” Aaron says. He studies Jesus thoughtfully, “We could fuck, I guess.”

He says it so casually it takes Daryl a minute for what he just said to process. For the first time in the day Daryl sees Jesus look rattled. He does a startled double take, eyes wide and blinking. His face goes back to his calm mask and he takes in several slow breaths, “I think you’ve had enough to drink for one night.”

“I don’t want to think,” Aaron says, sensing he’s hit pay dirt, “Come on, it doesn’t have to mean anything. I don’t have condoms or lube, but I’ll suck your dick if you promise not to come in my mouth.”

“Not thinking is what you’ve been trying to do since March. It’s obviously not working,” Jesus says archly.

Fuck. You.”

“Sorry, I don’t go for drunk guys who are being assholes on purpose. I know what you’re trying to do, and I promise you it’s not going to work.”

Aaron crosses the kitchen then,  grabs Jesus, and kisses him. It happens so suddenly Daryl thinks for a second Aaron is biting him like a rabid dog. Jesus pushes him away, “Aaron,” Jesus says, voice firm, starting to sound angry, “If I have to put you in a headlock I will.”

“Isn’t this why it was you who volunteered to do a welfare check in the first place?” Aaron snaps.

Jesus’ mouth presses into a thin line and a few hectic patches of color appear on his cheeks, “I know we’ve had our differences over the years, but I care about you. And that is a shitty thing for you to say to me. You’re drunk and you’re upset—“

“I’m one of only what--half a dozen? men in Atlanta that you haven’t fucked, don’t try and pretend you have standards now.”

Jesus looks like Aaron just slapped him. For a second his eyes grow bright and are full of such naked hurt that any of Daryl’s lingering animosity toward him fades and he starts getting pissed on his behalf. Jesus’ face returns to something cool and neutral so fast Daryl would think he imagined that look if it weren’t burned into his brain. Jesus’ voice is steady and devoid of emotion when he says, “If you want to take it out on me then go ahead. Take my word for it though, it won’t help in the long run. Voice of experience talking,” his face twitches but that cool mask remains in place, “And you know goddamned well that’s why it was me who came to check on you.”

Now it’s Aaron’s turn to look like he’s been slapped. His eyes get huge and bright, and he can’t look at Jesus, he has to turn his head. He stands there breathing slowly in and out, shoulders shaking. Jesus stares at him, breathing just as slowly.

“I’m sorry,” Aaron whispers, “It’s…fuck, Jesus. I don’t know why I said any of that, I didn’t mean it…I…fuck.”

Jesus takes another series of those breaths before responding, “You’re upset. It’s ok for even you to get upset and ugly sometimes. Grief is ugly. Just be careful not to make it a habit, because you might eventually lash out on someone who actually matters to you.”

Aaron opens his mouth to say something but all that comes out is a small, broken noise. His eyes well with tears and he claps his hand to his mouth. Watching Aaron fall completely to pieces is horrible. Daryl wants to hug him, offer some comfort but he wouldn’t know how to do it even if he was alive. Jesus does, “Come here,” he says quietly, tugging at Aaron’s arm. He resists only for a few minutes before slumping against the smaller man and weeping, “It’s ok. Let it out,” he says, rubbing small circles against Aaron’s back.

Aaron sobs out, “It was the last thing, Jesus. The last thing. Ever since…I had shit to do ever since we found out…doctors appointments…then funeral arrangements, everything to do with the legal shit for months after that.”

He’s not making much sense but Jesus just says, “I know, I know, it’s ok.”

“I got through by just saying ‘I’ll think about it later, I can’t right now, I have jobs to do.”

Aaron’s face is squished in Jesus’ shoulder. It’s the ugly kind of crying, with snot and smashed red eyes, “Cleaning out his stuff…that was the last thing. When it was done I knew…that I’d have to think about it.”

Daryl drifts toward them, hands awkwardly at his sides. Throwing negative emotions at people is easy, he has a wealth of them, memories of every type of ugliness there is. Even his happier ones—Merle taking him fishing when he was a kid, Mama letting him take licks of the cake batter off the spoon, the way he felt tromping through the woods—none of that seemed like enough. Instead he remembers what it felt like to watch two men smile at each other and be happy and lays a cautious hand against Aaron’s shoulder, trying to will that feeling into him.

He doesn’t know if it ends up helping or if it’s Jesus steadily murmuring soothing nonsense into Aaron’s ears until he’s cried himself out that does the trick. He leans toward the second one.

**************

Two men and one ghost sit at the table not saying much for the next couple of hours. Jesus just makes Aaron drink glass after glass of water until he's finally sobered up enough to go to sleep. He lets Jesus help him up the stairs into the sleeping loft. Daryl follows anxiously, Aaron looks heartbreakingly fragile. If it were the two of them they could probably just carry Aaron up, but Daryl's ghost ass can barely knock a hiker's backpack over, much less carry a grown man. But Jesus manages by himself, he helps Aaron into bed then goes to fetch a glass of water and some aspirin to leave by the bed, as well as the notepad and pen he'd borrowed earlier. 

Once Aaron’s comfortable Jesus asks if he needs anything else, and when Aaron shakes his head the other man heads toward the stairs. “Paul, wait,” Aaron says thickly, and for a moment Daryl wonders who the hell he’s talking to before Jesus pauses in the doorway.

“Your name is Paul?” Daryl mutters. He’s not sure why he’s surprised—it’s obvious that “Jesus” is a nickname, and a stupid one at that. Something college kids would think is funny to name their friend just because he’s nice and has long hair and a beard.

Daryl thinks he likes “Paul” better.

“Do you need something else?” Paul asks.

“I wanted to say I was sorry again.”

“You don’t have to. It’s ok—“

“Yes I do, and no it isn’t,” Aaron replies, voice wet.

Paul hesitates at the top of the stairs for a moment, visibly steels himself, and returns to sit on the edge of the bed next Aaron. He puts a hand against his shoulder and squeezes, “Look, like I said earlier—grief’s ugly. I get it. You apologized, I accepted. Try not to do it again.”

“You’re a good person,” Aaron says quietly, then, “I don’t think I can do this without him. Any of it.”

“You can. You will. Sometimes that’s the hardest part, that things don’t just stop.”

The loft is silent except for the sound of the two men breathing. Daryl starts to think that Aaron’s gone to sleep when he speaks, “I haven’t been able to write. I know how that sounds, out of all the things to be upset about but…that was always the one thing, you know? No matter what was going on in the real world, it’d just…take me away. I could go somewhere else. But ever since that first appointment with the oncologist the words just won’t come. Now it’s like…it’s like he took them all with him.”

“Even he did,” Paul says, “that doesn’t mean you can’t get some of them back, or find some new ones. You’re not the same anymore, you have to work out how this new person does things.”

“I’m sobering up yet that still made sense.”

Paul smiles and Daryl can see the glint of his eyes in the dark. “I’m glad.”

“Did I ever tell you that half the time when you say shit like to people I don’t know if you’re fucking with them or not?”

“I’ll let you in on a secret: half the time I am. But not right now.”

“Good,” Aaron says, sounding drowsy, “One more thing, before you go, I want to say—“

“I told you, you don’t have to keep apologizing to me.”

“I was just going to say thank you for checking up on me. But I do need to keep saying sorry, so there. I’m sorry,” he’s quiet for a long time, “And…and I wanted to say you do.”

“Sorry?” Paul asks.

“Matter to me.”

Paul’s only response is to quietly tell Aaron to go to sleep. It’s unnecessary, Daryl can hear the other man’s breath evening out. Paul stays and watches him for a few minutes. Daryl can’t read his expression at all, the guy’s a cypher (another new word he learned from reading over Aaron’s shoulder) All he can tell is Paul looks tired.

Without stopping to consider why Daryl sits down next to him on the edge of the bed, mirroring his pose as he looks down at Aaron. Daryl looks at him, though, at the expression that Daryl for the life of him can’t read. Cypher. Paul sighs, and places a hand on Aaron’s face, thumb stroking the other man’s cheekbone. “Wish things were different,” he says. His tone of voice and gesture are full of such aching tenderness that Daryl can’t keep looking at his face. Instead he looks at where Paul’s hand is resting against Aaron’s cheek.

Daryl feels a strange compulsion then. He places one hand over Paul’s. He can’t feel things unless he makes an effort, and it seems…invasive in a way that fucking with construction workers never did, or how he tried to pass on some warmth to Aaron earlier. He feels the rough of Aaron’s beard, the bones of Paul’s hand, both of them warm and full of life. Daryl closes his eyes and wishes with all his heart that things were different too.

When he opens them again the room is bright with morning sunshine. Paul and Aaron are both gone.

“The hell,” Daryl says, looking around wildly, horrified for a minute that he’d somehow switched off up in the sleeping loft and was waking up years and years later. In addition to it being daylight all of the sudden this room is completely different from the dimly lit loft and cabin illuminated only by the fireplace. This room is small and cramped with drab gray walls covered in posters. No mattress on the floor that Aaron has been too tired to place in the bed frame, instead Daryl is sitting on the edge of what looks like two twin beds that have been shoved together in the corner of this small room. There are two battered writing desks on either side of the room that both have bulkier, uglier versions of Aaron’s magic little computer sat on top.

“What the fuck,” Daryl says. He’s too stunned to panic or even try to understand just what the fuck is happening.

The door to the little room opens. Daryl gets a glimpse of a hallway before his entire attention is swallowed by the man coming through the door. It’s Aaron, looking impossibly young and gangly, with smooth cheeks and gravity-defying curls. He has little paper coffee cups in each hand is saying, “Morning, babe. Rise and shine, we’re supposed to meet Maggie and Sasha for a cram session in—“ his voice slams to a halt when he sees Daryl and his eyes grow wide. “Who are you?”

Daryl stares at him slack-jawed for so long that Aaron has to repeat the question. Something hot and heavy and huge tightens around his lungs. No one has looked Daryl in the eye and spoken to him for more than thirty years. And it’s Aaron that is looking at him, seeing him, even it’s this gangly strange young Aaron and Daryl can’t even begin to think coherently.

“Hey,” Aaron says, “Are you ok?”

“You,” Daryl finally says, his voice a rasp, “You c’n see me?”

“Of course I can,” Aaron replies, “I…who are you? Where did Eric go, he was just here…” He seems…remarkably calm, for finding a strange man sitting on the edge of his bed and his boyfriend missing. In fact he sits down next to Daryl and again asks if he’s ok, and what his name is.

“Daryl,” he says, voice choked, “I…I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on…I…” He squeezes his eyes shut, he can’t look into Aaron’s blue eyes while the man is seeing him, it’s too much.

He’s half convinced that when he opens them again he’ll be back in the sleeping loft staring down at Aaron sleeping form, a hand the other man will never know is there resting against his cheek.

Aaron isn’t gone when Daryl opens his eyes, but his appearance has changed. He looks older, like how he was when Daryl first saw him the previous summer. Just a bit of scruff on his cheeks instead of the wild man’s beard he’s currently sporting in the real world.

Daryl’s not sure how he knows what’s going on then—it’s a bit like how he understood he was dead as soon as Ash said it into his face, there was no mental denial or fumbling. “I think…I think you might be dreamin.’” Saying it out loud makes it no less astonishing. 

Aaron looks confused for a moment before looking behind Daryl’s shoulder. Daryl twists his head to see what has caught his attention—it’s the view from the window. Wherever this place is supposed to be the view is of Daryl’s valley from the ridge just above his grave. It’s the same angle as it’d be looking out the big picture window in the sleeping loft. He turns back to Aaron and the other man is nodding, “Oh. Of course I am. Dreaming, I mean.” How accepting he is of this idea is all the proof Daryl needs that it’s the correct one. Daryl hasn’t slept in thirty years but he still remembers what it was like to dream, how weird shit happens and you just roll with it.

Kinda like being dead, in a way.

Aaron is talking to him again, “Daryl? It was Daryl, right? Do you want some coffee? I got this for Eric but he’s…” Aaron looks confused, “He’s gone…somewhere.”

“Yeah. That’d be,” Daryl’s voice chokes again, “I’d like that a lot.”

Chapter Text

“Sit down,” Aaron says, and Daryl’s about to remind him that they already are when he realizes there’s been one of those weird dream shifts and they’re no longer in the cramped little gray room. Instead they’re standing by an unfamiliar kitchen table in the middle of the woods. As Daryl pulls out a chair and sits down he sees that it’s not just any woods. The table and chairs are set up on top of his grave.

“Hey,” Aaron says softly, “This looks like where our cabin is. Should be right up on that ridge, we started building it last year. Before we knew Eric was sick…oh,” Aaron says softly, “That’s where he went, I just remembered…”

Daryl looks at Aaron and sees that the other man has tears in his eyes. Daryl reaches out to grab his shoulder but loses his nerve midway through and draws his arm awkwardly back. He looks away from Aaron’s face at the woods surrounding them and realizes that an entire kitchen itself is there, everything except the walls. Kitchen cabinets hang suspended on empty space as does a ticking kitchen clock shaped like a smiling black cat.

“It is, yeah,” Daryl says. A lump grows in his throat, “This was how the view used to look from my grave.” He hadn’t realized how sad and lonely the ridge looked without Aaron and Eric’s cabin there.

“Your grave,” Aaron says, frowning and looking around, “I don’t see a grave…”

“We’re sittin’ on it,” Daryl says quietly.

“Oh,” Aaron says, “I’m sorry, should we move? I didn’t know it was there.”

No,” Daryl says.

“I don’t want to be disrespectful—“

“You ain’t. It’s nice. Don’t really get visitors. I…I like having you around.”

“Ok, if you’re sure. Daryl, right? I’m Aaron, I don’t know if I introduced myself…”

“I know,” Daryl blurts out, then flushes. He takes a sip of the coffee he’d forgotten about until that moment. It’s too sweet—Aaron probably fixed it up how Eric liked it—but while Daryl can see and hear and sometimes feel things, taste and smell is something he no longer gets to experience in the waking world. The coffee is nice, even if it’s Aaron’s too-sweet dream of coffee.

Aaron studies him thoughtfully, “You know?”

“Yeah,” Daryl says, and grits his teeth. No use bein’ a pussy about it, “Sorry. I been watching you. Not…not while you’re takin’ a crap or nothin’ like that…or…um…showering…” Daryl blushes at that half truth; he had peeked at Aaron once during the latter activity, eyes crawling down his bare backside before guilt got the better of him. “Sorry,” Daryl repeats, “It’s just…well, this is my grave and I can’t go very far. If it bothers you though I c’n stop. Stay out here in the woods.”

“I…I think I already knew that,” Aaron says, startling Daryl. The other man has a far away look in his eyes, “I haven’t…it’s weird, but I haven’t felt alone up here. Not like how I felt in our condo in Atlanta. I told myself a hundred times I was imagining things, or…just remembering how Eric and I used to joke about the cabin ghost. The foreman said the construction site was haunted.”

“Uh, yeah,” Daryl says, realizing he has something more to confess, “That was me. Sorry if’n I held things up or cost y’all money. I just…it wasn’t exactly restful havin’ all them guys stomping around up here. They scare’t off all my animals so I had nothing to do but listen to them talk bullshit. I stopped fuckin’ with ‘em when you and Eric showed up, I didn’t mind sharing the place with you two. Was lookin’ forward to it, actually.”

Aaron sucks in a breath when Daryl says Eric’s name, “You. Um. You saw Eric?”

“Yeah,” Daryl admits. He looks away, “I was…I was real sorry he wasn’t with you when you came back this time.”

“Me too,” Aaron replies. He swallows, “This…this place was our dream. Ever since we were back in school, we used to come up with our friends to hike. We loved this spot. When I told Eric I wanted to try to be a writer…he didn’t laugh, or tell me I should be realistic. He just said we should buy a place up here where I could hide from the world while I did it. I was going to sell this place, but before he died he asked me not to. Wanted me to live the dream even if he wasn’t there. Stupid, he was the dream. But I promised him I wouldn’t.”

Daryl hesitates for a moment, “I…I dunno if it helps at all, but he ain’t gone. I mean, he ain’t here or I’d’ve seen him. But if I’m still around after thirty years then there’s something after for everyone, I ain’t special. So he’s somewhere. Maybe he’s where you buried him…” Daryl frowns, that doesn’t feel right, “Or he’s somewhere else. Somewhere better. He seemed like a good person.”

“He was,” Aaron says, voice thick with tears, “That…uh, that does help, actually. We buried him in Decatur cemetery. It wasn’t that far from our condo and we used to walk through the historic section. If he’s there…that’s a good place for him.”

“Like I said,” Daryl adds, “I’m not sure how this ghost shit works for everybody. If there’s a next world than he probably got to go there.”

“Either way,” Aaron says, with a shuddery sigh, “it’s nice to know it’s possible I’ll see him again. Thank you.”

“’S’alright,” Daryl replies. He fidgets, not sure he wants to know, or if Aaron wants to talk about it, “How’d it happen? He didn’t…when I saw him he seemed so…he didn’t look sick.”

Daryl waits the answer with irrational dread; despite everything he’s overheard Aaron say to him and to Jesus he can’t shake the fear that Eric—who was so happy and open with who and what he was— had ended up like Daryl. So it’s almost a relief when Aaron confirms, “It was uh. Pancreatic cancer.”

Almost.

Aaron is still talking, “By the time we found out it was too late to really do anything. Three months later he was dead. Those were…those were a rough three months”

“Fuck, man,” Daryl says, “That sounds…shit. When I died it was over pretty quick, at least.”

Aaron wipes his eyes, “He’d actually been having symptoms for over a year. But neither of us thought anything of them because they always went away and they were always so…so mundane. Upset stomach after a rich meal, getting tired easier…” Aaron looks up at the ridge where the cabin stands in the waking world, “And that time right before his first symptoms…everything was so goddamned crazy. My book…it exploded. My publisher thought it’d do well, but it did better than their wildest imaginings. Better than my wildest imaginings. They paid me a huge advance for the next one—how I was able to start building this place—then after we broke ground a movie studio bought the option for a film and we were rich. I couldn’t believe it, when I finished the book I was just happy I found someone willing to publish it and I’d make enough so that Eric would stop having to support both of us. I thought I was so lucky,” Aaron says, and he sounds so, so, fucking bitter, “Meanwhile Eric was eating his body weight in Tums so he could keep up with me. He didn’t go to the doctor until last Christmas for what he thought was a pulled muscle but was a really a fucking tumor eating him alive from the inside out. So much for being lucky.”

Daryl can’t think of an answer to that. Part of him wants to tell Aaron that he was lucky to be able to have Eric in the first place but he doubted pointing that out would help. “Like I said. I was sorry he couldn’t come out here. I was lookin’ forward to getting to know him too.”

Aaron smiles then, some of his bitterness fading, “Even fucking ghosts.”

“Even ghosts what?” Daryl asks.

Aaron smiles again, sad and fond, “Eric was the kind of guy…just…made friends everywhere he went. We’d go on vacation and he’d talk to someone at a bus stop and they’d exchange email addresses and Eric would actually stay in touch with them for years. We’d walk down the street and a random car would drive by and someone would honk and yell, ‘Hey Eric!’” Aaron smiles that sad, fond smile, “I’d ask who the heck that was, and he’d say something like, ‘Oh, that’s Wayne, he works down at the square, his son’s at Emory and he just had to put his dog down’—this entire spiel. When we first started dating I’d ask how he knew these people and expect him to say it was someone he knew really well for a long time, and he’d just say, ‘oh, we both get coffee at Java Monkey and talk sometimes while waiting in line’,” Aaron’s eyes are bright, and he laughs, “So. Even fucking ghosts wanted to be his friend.”

“Well. I wasn’t a good person when I was alive. Me bein’ a ghost is the only way he’d ever be friends with me to begin with.”

Aaron studies him, “Why weren’t you a good person?”

Daryl drops his eyes. He hadn’t meant to say that, and wasn’t sure why he did. He picks at the edges of his fingernails, “Wasn’t much of a person. I was nothin’. Just some redneck asshole with an even bigger asshole for a brother. Driftin’ round, doing whatever he said we was gonna do that day. Usually shit that was pretty ugly.”

Aaron is quiet. Then, “How did you die?”

Daryl’s fists clench, “That’s pretty ugly too.”

“I figured,” Aaron murmurs, “You don’t end up in unmarked graves in the middle of the woods unless it was ugly.” Daryl chances a glance in the other man’s eyes and they’re so soft he has to look away again. “Daryl,” Aaron says, “How did you die?”

Daryl’s breathing becomes pinched and his heart pounds. He doesn’t want to give Aaron more than the bare minimum of details, just a few facts, but the guy deserves to know the kind of man he’s keeping house with, even if that man is dead. So he lets out a shaky breath and said, “Merle—that was my brother’s name—he was part of this gang, the Savage Sons. Hell’s Angels wannabes. They was…they was involved in some of that ugly shit I was talking about. Drugs, armed robbery, gun trafficking. I wasn’t one of the Sons, not officially, but I got involved with some of it. I owed it to Merle. Mostly…I was always good to bring along if they expected a fight, or when someone owed money and needed their ass kicked. Never kill’t nobody or hurt ‘em bad enough they didn’t recover, but I sure as hell’d look the other way if I suspected someone else did.”

Daryl’s afraid to look at Aaron, so he stares down at his grave, “One time after I helped Boyd Guthrie out—he was the leader of this chapter of the Savage Sons—he uh, he sent this girl to me. As a thank you. He’d done it before; prostitution was bread and butter for the Savage Sons, and it was a cheap way to pay someone back. I never…I knew how it’d look if I turned it down…so most times I’d get drunk and just grit my teeth and get it over with. But this time…” Daryl swallows; he feels a great weight is pressing down on him, like the worst sort of trash. Especially sitting next to a guy like Aaron, “This time the girl was young. Real young. She was done up all trashy, but you could tell she was just a fucking kid. Even if I weren’t a…if…I couldn’t’ve done it, y’know? So I just took to the back room and we got to talking. Asked her how old she was, started with seventeen but finally admitted to bein’ thirteen.”

“Jesus,” Aaron says quietly.

Daryl flinches, and barrels on, “She was real scare’t. Thought Boyd’d hurt her if she didn’t make me happy, kept asking me what was wrong with her, didn’t believe me when I said she was too young for me. Finally I just…I told her the rest of it. That never liked women to begin with and I…I thought I was…” Daryl has no idea why the words stick in his throat now, talking to Aaron, who’s a queer too and unashamed of it. Why this chokes him with shame when he’s just admitted to running with a crew that pimped out little girls on the side. 

Aaron’s fingers brush against his own, and without thinking Daryl grips his hand. He looks cautiously up into the other man’s face and there’s nothing but understanding and sympathy. Daryl breathes out and is able to whisper, “Told her I thought I was a queer.”

He has to drop his eyes then. It’s just as hard for him to look at their linked hands as it is Aaron’s eyes so he looks back at his grave.

“This Boyd,” Aaron says, “He found out, right? What you told her.”

“He did, yeah,” Daryl replies, “I dunno if she told him or he beat it out of her. Don’t hold it against her none regardless. Not like I did shit to help her. Just went about my merry way. Wasn’t more’n a week later when I was at Willie’s one night drinking by myself when Boyd and a bunch of the Savage Sons came in asking after Merle. When I said Merle’d left an hour ago with some gal Boyd and the rest of ‘em started needlin’ me. Said he’d heard a rumor that I liked sucking dick. We got into it, said some words…” Daryl looks at he patch of earth his bones have lain for three decades and says, “Finally I said yeah, I was a fucking queer and sucked dick but that was better’n being a guy like him who liked fiddlin’ little fucking kids. The bartender told us to take this shit outside, it started out as a fight but they didn’t stop ’till I was dead.”

He tells Aaron the rest of it, of waking up trapped in his body, being buried, Merle putting the Zippo on his grave and how Daryl thought that was what’d freed him. Finally he runs out of words. His eyes are hot and he realizes he’s started crying.

Aaron’s hand leaves his, but it’s only so he can push himself up out of his chair to walk over and put his arms around Daryl’s shoulders. That sets Daryl off bawling. He hasn’t cried once since his death nor had the urge, and even before hadn’t done it this hard since he was a little kid. Aaron’s crying too, they sit over Daryl’s grave clinging to each other and blubbering ’till snot is pouring out their noses and their eyes are swollen, crying against each other just as ugly as Aaron had cried into Jesus’ shoulder.

When they’re all cried out Aaron gets up and returns to his seat. Daryl sniffs his nose a few times. They’re very quiet for an unknown amount of time, everything feels stretched out and hazy. Finally Daryl says, “Stupid. I never even…I never even kissed a guy, y’know? Not even in my head if I could help it. Didn’t think…I thought that was the worst thing about me. Can you believe that, after all the shit I just said?”

“You said,” Aaron starts, voice shaky. He clears his throat, “You said that Merle told the rest of the Savage Sons he tried beating being gay out of you when you were a little.”

“He was just talking shit,” Daryl said quickly, “Merle could be an asshole but he’d never raised a hand to me. Our daddy was a different story, but I dunno if he ever figured out the queer thing. I was only eleven when he died. But Merle…we never talked about it, but he knew. Worst he’d do was rag on me some, call me ‘Darlina’ or tell me to man the fuck up. He looked after me when Daddy died and I never went to sleep hungry or with a busted lip or worse, which is more’n I can say when the old man was alive. And I owe him for marking my grave. He didn’t have to do that, and if Boyd would’ve caught him he might’ve killed him.”

The corner of Aaron’s mouth twists down but he doesn’t comment. Finally he says, “I don’t think you’re a bad person. I think you had a bad life. And I’m sorry you’ve been out here by yourself, you must be lonely.”

“I think you’re too nice for your own good,” Daryl mutters, “And I do alright out here. There’s lots of stuff to see. Always liked the woods. When I was alive I mostly watched animals if I was huntin’ ‘em, but even when I wasn’t I could do it a long time. Now…I dunno, sometimes some of them sense I’m there—the crows and ravens always do— but since they can’t see or hear me I can get real close. There was this family of foxes one year, I’d just plant myself by their den and the kits would play right at my feet. Then there’s the hikers on the Trail, I go visit them sometimes when I feel like human company.”

“You can go as far away as the trail?” Aaron asks.

“Yeah,” Daryl replies.

“Did you ever see us out there? We came here all the time.”

Daryl shakes his head, “No, I worked it out, I was switched off when you’d’ve come up.”

“’Switched off’?”

“Don’t know what else to call it,” Daryl explains, “When things get too much I can just…turn off.”

“You mean go to sleep?” Aaron asks, brow wrinkling in a charming fashion.

“No. Sleeping is something. Yer sleeping now, ain’t ya? Switching off is nothing.”

Aaron looks pained, “What if you don’t come back from that? Don’t you worry?”

“Hasn’t happened yet,” Daryl says, “I guess…dunno, worth the risk. I don’t do it often, every couple years usually. Most of the time it’s only a few days, but I had a few times it was more’n a year. Don’t matter how long it’s for, I feel better when I come back.”

“You said you’d been out here thirty years.”

“Or thereabouts. Since October of ’79.”

“How old were you?”

“Thirty-eight,” Daryl frowns, “Weird to think I been dead almost as long as I was alive.”

“Yeah, weird,” Aaron says, “I was born in ’81.”

“Jesus, you’re a baby,” Daryl says, “You already a famous writer? Must be good.”

Aaron smiles, “It was more having someone who believed in me, kept a roof over my head, and food on the table while I was banging the thing out. Lucky.”

“You were,” Daryl says, “You are.”

************************

After they have the big shit out of the way—Eric and Daryl’s deaths—no topic of conversation seems off limits. And they talk for hours. Maybe days or weeks, Daryl can’t tell. Everything has this stretched out taffy feeling and Daryl has no sense of time passing. Daryl tells Aaron things he couldn’t have imagined telling anybody while he was alive, mostly to do with being a queer—being a gay man, as Aaron politely requested that Daryl call it when referring to anyone other than himself.

“Just a word,” Daryl says, a little defensive.

“I write for a living and at one point there was seven figures in my bank account because of words. They matter.”

Daryl nods, “Fair ’nuff.”

“And…ok, when you were talking about your dad fighting in the Pacific…don’t call them Japs, ok? ‘Japanese people’.”

Daryl flushes; he doesn’t want Aaron to think he’s some ignorant white trash, or at least more than he probably already does, “Sorry. I don’t…I don’t have nothin’ against people that’re…I mean, I thought I did when I was alive, but death cleared that up. Assholes who did me in were white guys who hated everyone who wasn’t, and I get all sorts of folks on the trail. You watch people enough you learn we’re not all that different, not really,” Daryl snorts, “Merle’d probably be spinning in his grave if heard that.”

An odd look crosses Aaron’s face, “It’s ok, I understand.”

Daryl picks at his fingernails, “Let me know if I say anything else…”

“I will. It’s…like I said, words matter, but so do the thoughts behind words. It’s hard to get it right sometimes, but…but you’re trying. A lot of people wouldn’t.”

Aaron tells Daryl all about his college friends, who he says at this point are more like family. Definitely more like family than his blood kin, which Aaron also talks about.

“Dad was military, so we moved around a lot,” Aaron says, “I think the four years I spent in college was the longest I’d spent anywhere up until that point.”

“Where all did ya live?”

“Oh, all over the US,” Aaron says, “Few years in Hawaii, Alaska, Kansas…few years in Germany, then Japan, South Korea…that’s one of the reasons Glenn and I became such good friends. We were roommates our first year at school and he’s second generation Korean, we used to make sarcastic remarks to each other without anyone else understanding us and watch K-dramas in our dorm.”

“Glenn is…Maggie’s husband, right? I heard her talking ‘bout you to Jesus.”

Aaron nods, “She’s kind of the leader of the GREATMS.”

“Great’ems?” Daryl asked.

Aaron smiles nostalgically, “That’s what we called our little group in college. G-R-E-A-T-M-S. Tara came up with that one and it kind of stuck. Glenn, Rosita, Eric, Aaron, Tara, Maggie, and Sasha.”

Daryl thinks for a moment, “Where does Paul come in? Jesus, I mean.”

Aaron’s smile fades, “Paul came later, after we all met. Or sooner in Maggie’s case—he was her foster brother. Only for a year or so when they were teenagers but they got really close. Lost touch after Jesus went to stay with a different family, and then junior year she was walking across campus and they saw each other. He’d just started, was a few years behind us.” Aaron frowns, “I don’t suppose…fuck, were you watching us today?”

“Yeah, you were sorta bein’ a dick to him,” Daryl admits.

Aaron scrubs a palm across his face, “Fuck. I can’t believe I said some of that shit to him. That was…that was cruel.

Daryl almost assures Aaron that Jesus seemed to understand and take it in stride but then he flashes to that hurt look on the man’s face when Aaron said he was one of the only guys that Jesus hadn’t fucked. “Why was he in foster care?” Daryl asks, “You said that’s how he knew Maggie.”

Aaron winces, “Orphan, his parents and his brother died in a car crash when he was a kid. That’s why everyone sent him, I think. Out of all of us he’s the one with the most experience dealing with your entire world ending.”

Daryl turns that information over in his head, “So you weren’t just being a dick, you were being a super dick.”

“A massive, massive, massive dick,” Aaron agrees.

“Dick supreme,” Daryl drawls.

“Dickius maximus,” Aaron says.

“Dickland uber alles,” Daryl says, voice dry as paper.

That makes Aaron lose it, he laughs harder than that joke deserves, a deep belly laugh that lasts until he’s red in the face and a few tears are squeezed out. Once he gets himself under control that frown comes back, “Fuck. I just wanted him to…just stop staring at me so calm and understanding. It drives me up the fucking wall when he does that.”

“What’s the deal with you two?” Daryl asks, “He said you didn’t always get along.”

Aaron snorts, “That’s one way of putting it, yeah,” he rakes a hand through his curls, “Paul is…he’s a good person, but there were times over the years he just made it impossible to be his friend. Just gives out these little fortune cookie spiels and twirls off when you try to get to know him or pin him down. Even Eric had trouble with him sometimes. Only one who really gets him is Maggie.” His mouth twists, “And he sleeps around a lot, which I wouldn’t have a problem with—that type of thing isn’t for me, but different strokes and all that—except he has horrific taste in men. Fucking Alex is the worst and he’s also the one we can’t seem to get rid of, but almost all of them have been pretty hideous. The one or two decent guys he just…led on for awhile before ghosting them. Plus he just…he used to take all these stupid risks. Not just drugs, but going to sketchy bars and getting into fights or…there was this thing he did senior year…”

Aaron rakes his hand through his curls again, they’re sticking up in ten different directions and Daryl would think he looked adorable if this weren’t something that obviously upset him, “I don’t suppose…you died in the seventies, so I guess you don’t know what parkour is…”

“No,” Daryl shakes his head.

“It’s a type of…gymnastics? But you do it in a city, climb up buildings…well anyway, Jesus was really into it at the time. Me, Eric, Glenn, and Maggie shared a suite in the upperclassman dorms and Tara, Rosita, Sasha, and another girl shared one right above us and catty corner,” as Aaron says this he raises his hands holds them flat and apart to evoke the setup, “The suites all had these little balconies, I was sitting out on ours and I heard Jesus call out that he’d forgotten his jacket in Maggie’s room, and could I go get it and toss it up to him. I said no, I was relaxed out there and wasn’t moving from my chair, if he wanted it he’d have to come down and get it. He just got this look on his face; and before I realized what he meant to do he climbed over the rail of their balcony and just…stepped off. Totally casual. He grabbed our balcony on the way down, stopped himself, climbed over our railing, and went to get his jacket.”

“Not gonna lie,” Daryl says after a bit, “That sounds pretty fucking badass.”

“It wasn’t; we were on the tenth floor,” Aaron says, face dark and unamused, “I had nightmares about him missing the railing for years after that. It probably shaved a couple decades off the end of my life. He doesn’t do shit like that anymore, but when I see him being all…all…calm, and Jesus like I just…” Aaron tugs at his curls again. “Anyway. It’s hard to like someone who’s as careless with your friend as Paul used to be with himself.”

Daryl has no answer for that. He looks down at the table—somehow during their hours or days or weeks long conversation the coffee is gone and there are two beers and a pack of smokes on the table instead. Daryl grabs the smokes—there’s a lighter tucked in with the cigarettes that he uses to open each of their beer bottles before lighting up. Aaron’s not a smoker, and his dream of a cigarette isn’t much like the real thing, but it feels comforting to lean back and take a nice long drag.

“What?” Daryl asks when he looks at Aaron. The other man is staring at him. “You mind?” Daryl asks, gesturing with the cigarette.

Aaron looks away quickly, “Not at all. Mi casa es su casa. Besides, it’s your grave we’re sitting on.” He grabs his beer and takes a long swig.

“Good deal,” Daryl says. He smokes for a bit, enjoying the ritual of it more than anything else.

“Do you hear that?” Aaron asks after a few minutes.

Daryl listens and is about to say no, he doesn’t, when he realizes there’s a distant jangle of music echoing off in the distance. Daryl can hear words, slow and stretched out.

“…first thing I remember knowing…was a long and lonesome whistle blowing…”

“Sounds a bit like Merle Haggard,” Daryl says.

Aaron frowns, “I don’t…I think I’m going to wake up soon.” He looks incredibly sad at the thought.

Not half as sad as Daryl feels, though. His stomach plummets as the music becomes louder, “Oh. I guess…I guess I’ll see ya, then.” But you won’t see me, Daryl thinks. Thirty years not being seen or spoken to by anyone, and all it took was a single night spent jabbering away to a guy for the thought of things going back to that unbearable.

“…On a freight train leaving town…not knowing where I’m bound…”

“It was really nice, talking to you," Aaron says, "Can we do it again some time?”

He sounds so hopeful that Daryl flushes at the thought of him wanting to do this again, “I…I’d like to. I’ll try, but I don’t know…I don’t know how this happened, to be honest. Ain’t never done nothing like this before.” A wave of sadness hits him again, “’Sides, I get the feeling when you wake up you’ll forget all about this, or…I dunno. Think it was just a dream.”

“If I do, then I’m sorry,” Aaron says, “I’m glad you don’t mind sharing this space. It’s been nice not being alone out here, even if I don’t realize it on the top of my mind.”

“Oh,” Daryl says, fiddling with his cigarette some more, “So…you don’t mind? Anything you want me to clear out for? Like I said, I don’t watch when yer doing private stuff.”

“No, I don’t mind,” Aaron says, a little smile on his face, “I just ask for one thing in return.”

“Anything,” Daryl says.

“Well, wait until you hear it first.”

“I’m dead,” Daryl says, “Not a lot goin’ on.”

“Can I…do you mind if I write about you? Put you in a book sometime? Not the one I’m writing now, I don’t think you’d fit.”

“…one and only rebel child, from a family meek and mild…”

Daryl blinks at him, “I…what d’ya mean? Like, my biography, or…”

“No,” Aaron says, “I mean…when I say write about you, I mean base a character on you. I try to ask, even if half of the time when it happens I don’t do it on purpose and don’t realize it until after.”

“Oh,” Daryl says, shifting awkwardly. He’s not sure if he’s the sort of guy who’d be in a book, but then he remembers that Aaron wrote a book about a cult that committed mass suicide and is planning another about axe murders. “Ok, I guess. So long as you don’t mind me reading over your shoulder while you write it. Was looking forward to that too, you up here writing. Haven’t read more’n a chapter or two since before I died.”

“Deal,” Aaron says, smiling again. “If I ever figure out how to start writing again.” He studies Daryl a moment, expression thoughtful, as though turning something over in his mind. He nods, coming to a decision, then gets to his feet. Daryl does the same, expecting a handshake but Aaron hugs him instead. Then, before Daryl realizes what’s happening Aaron presses a quick kiss against the corner of his mouth. There’s nothing sexy or dirty about it and he doesn’t linger, hardly can be called a kiss. Just an impression of Aaron’s lip and scruff scraping against his own. Friendly.

Daryl thinks he might fucking faint all the same.

“Thanks for listening,” Aaron says softly when he pulls away. His face is right there, eyes soft and fond.

“You,” Daryl’s voice is high, “You too.”

*****************

Daryl wakes up from Aaron’s dream with his lips still tingling. One minute he’s staring into Aaron’s blue eyes, the next he is about the same distance away staring at his scrunched up, sleeping face. His breathing speeds up minutely, forehead smoothes, and he opens his eyes.

For one shining, hopeful moment Daryl thinks the other man can still see him. Then Aaron sighs and turns over onto his back, rubbing his eyes.

It doesn’t hurt as bad as getting his head stomped in did, but it’s dang close.

Daryl can hear the music properly now, the volume isn’t loud but the acoustics in the loft bring it up. Merle Haggard, just like Daryl thought, and over that Paul singing quietly along.

I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole…no one could steer me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried…”

“Jesus?” Aaron calls out, “That you?”

The music cuts off, and Daryl hears Paul calling up the stairs, “Aaron? I’m sorry, I didn’t think the music was that loud…”

Aaron rubs his face and in a voice still thick with sleep, “That’s fine. What time is it?”

“Two in the afternoon.”

“Jesus,” Aaron breathes out.

“Speaking,” Paul replies, “Do you want some lunch?”

“Yeah,” Aaron says, “I’ll be right down…gotta…gotta do something first…” He still sounds groggy as he pushes himself up, curls fluffy around his head. He gropes one long arm out for the notebook and pen Paul left by his bed last night. He clicks the pen open, stares at the blank page, then as Daryl watches he scratches out:

Char. Name: DARYL (LASTNAME??)

He underlines the name a few times, then continues scribbling:

Physical description: Late 30s. Striking rather than handsome/pretty but v. sexy/attractive. Has no idea. Sharp cheekbones, sq jaw, dark hair hangs over narrow blue eyes. *Amazing* body, broad shoulders, chiseled arms, narrow waist. His grindr profile would have the words “rough trade” somewhere (not that he’d ever be on grindr)

“What the hell?” Daryl says, the tips of his ears growing hot, “Fuck does ‘rough trade’ mean? Or a grinder?” Never mind the rest of it, “amazing body” “very sexy”? Daryl wonders if he’d looked different in Aaron’s dream, the way the other man had first appeared as a lanky college student. It gets worse, Daryl stares aghast as Aaron writes:

Personality:

Runs w/ a bad crowd but is a good man. “Heart of gold.” Looks like a menacing biker type but underneath it is shy, even sweet. He looks like he’d beat your ass if you said that about him. He *could* but he wouldn’t.

“Good man” is also underlined. Aaron taps the pen against the pad of paper then continues:

Uneducated but very intelligent—access to proper education/encouragement and he could have done almost anything. Brave. Loyal. Kind. Hurt by too many people, can’t see his worth. Can tell a good person from a bad person.

Flaws: Volatile, hot-headed. Mild racism/prejudice but from ignorance rather than malice, sort of thing he’d naturally overcome if given the opportunity. Flip side to loyalty is he can give it to people who don’t deserve it.

“You got all that bullshit talking with me in a dang dream?” Daryl says, squirming with embarrassment and more than a little frustration, to go from having actual conversations with Aaron back to this silence, and to see the kind of…whatever the hell this is Aaron’s writing.

Background:

Born into *extreme* poverty in Southern Appalachia.

“That ain’t…I never said that. We did alright—“

Physically abusive father, emotionally abusive older brother (complicated by the fact brother actually loves him/is his sole source of affection despite this)

“Hey now,” Daryl says, “I ain’t…I never said that ‘bout Merle.”

Brother part of local motorcycle gang. Murdered by this gang when they find out he’s a gay man and also meets the bare minimum of human decency i.e. won’t rape a child (possible ulterior motive for murder, maybe to send a message to brother, and sexuality the excuse? )

Daryl is incapable of eating, has no stomach or body, and he should not be able to feel nausea reading those words.

Possible ulterior motive.

Thirty years of being dead and Daryl has never once considered that. He still doesn’t consider it, he knew Boyd, knew that being a queer—a gay man— was more than enough cause for him to kill someone. Besides, Merle would’ve told him if he’d done something that would make Boyd want to send a message.

Possible ulterior motive.

Aaron’s still not finished, he frowns hard at the notepad, clicking on the edge of the pen. After a long moment he scribbles over every instance of the word “murder” in the background section and prints the word “attack” above it. Finally he writes:

Survives attack by skin of his teeth. Able to get away from his brother/the gang and make friends with people who value him. Falls in love w/ a good man (and is loved in return) Gets to be happy.

Aaron underlines and circles “gets to be happy”. He stares at the notepad a moment longer before pushing himself up out of bed and padding down the stairs.

Daryl spends several minutes reading and rereading the page in Aaron’s notebook before he’s able to gather himself up enough to drift down the stairs to see what Aaron and Paul are up to.

Chapter Text

Aaron is sitting at the kitchen table watching Paul, who has his long hair pulled back in a tight bun and his sleeves pushed up as he chops vegetables on a cutting board. He has a massive pile already of red pepper and another of onions; and almost the entire surface of the kitchen table is covered in ingredients—Daryl sees a bowl of shredded cheese, another of black beans, a heavy pot filled with what looks like pulled pork or chicken. In front of Aaron is a half-finished omelette made with some of these ingredients.

“You plannin’ on company?” Daryl mutters, taking a seat on the kitchen counter and looking down at the two men.

“I’m not the world’s best chef, and please never tell Rosita about my sad attempt at re-creating Mexican seasoning,” Paul says, “But these burritos will last you. Stick them in the freezer, heat them up in the microwave for five minutes. Easy peasy, plus cheaper and healthier than the garbage in the frozen food aisle,” Paul says. As Daryl watches he finishes chopping vegetables and starts to prepare a burrito, laying a tortilla out on a sheet of aluminum foil and filling it with ingredients.

“Thank you,” Aaron says, “Give me a minute for the coffee to kick in and I’ll help.”

“No, sit there with your coffee until I’m sure you’re not so hung over you’ll ruin my efforts by puking all over everything,” Paul says, smiling a little.

Aaron smiles back, looking tired and rumpled with his curls everywhere and his out-of-control wild man beard. Daryl still thinks he looks better than he has since he got here. “I’m not…I feel tired, but not hungover. Must’ve slept off the worst of it.”

“Well, I went up to check on you a few times and you were sleeping like the dead.”

“The dead don’t sleep, they switch off,” Aaron murmurs. Paul raises his eyebrows but says nothing in response to what to him must seem like a nonsensical comment. “Whatever it was, it did the trick. I was dreaming…”

“Good ones, bad ones?”

“Strange,” Aaron says, “But…” he smiles a sweet smile that Daryl can’t quite believe is over him, “they were good.” He turns his head so he is looking out the massive picture windows that overlook the valley.

Paul pauses his burrito preparation to study Aaron’s profile, smiling a soft, fond smile before going back to work.

“Hey Jesus,” Aaron says, still staring out the windows, “Can I ask you a question without you thinking I’m losing my mind?”

“Not with an intro like that,” he says, “I can try, but no promises. But it’s ok, you’re allowed to lose your mind every now and then, so long as it’s not so bad you can’t find it again.”

Aaron turns back from the window and gives Paul a look, and the latter gives a bland smile in response. Aaron snorts, and fiddles with his mug of coffee, “Do you…do you believe in ghosts?”

Paul’s reaction isn’t exactly what Daryl would’ve expected. He goes completely still, his face smoothing out from even that bland expression and he lays his hands flat on the table, “Why do you ask?”

“Just curious,” Aaron says evasively.

“Depends on what you mean by ‘ghosts’, Aaron. What exactly is a ghost? A memory? A concept?”

“I mean ghosts,” Aaron says with a flash of irritation, “Spirits of dead people who visit you from beyond the grave.”

“Oh. In that case no, I don’t,” he says softly, “Sorry. I think when you die then you’re gone for good. Either this life’s all you get—which is what I think, or if there’s a next world then there’s no coming back from it. Anything else is projection, or…” his lips quirk, “what did Scrooge say? ‘Bit of undigested beef, underdone potato…more of gravy than of grave’.”

“Well, fuck you very much,” Daryl mutters.

Aaron’s face falls, and he goes back to fiddling with his coffee. He sounds unbearably sad when he says, “You’re probably right.”

A flicker of emotion crosses Paul’s still face, “I’m sorry. That’s just my opinion. I also think it doesn’t matter one way or another if they’re spirits or you imagining things. Ghosts are one of those things that are as real as you need them to be.”

Aaron’s jaw tightens, “Sounds like a pretty big difference to me. Someone’s dead and if you see or talk to them it’s them or you going crazy. Projecting.”

“Does…does Eric talk to you?”

The question seems to anger Aaron, “Forget it. This isn’t what you think, and if you start thinking I’m cracking up you’ll never go back to your own life.” He stares pointedly away from Paul, back out the picture windows.

There’s another flicker of emotion on Paul’s face, and Daryl thinks he sees a ghost of the hurt he saw last night when Aaron was coming on to him. “Hey, dickus maximus,” he says, “You were just pissing and moaning to me ‘bout how much you regretted talkin’ to him like this earlier.”

Paul stares at Aaron’s profile without moving, that calm bland look on his face. Daryl glances down to where his hands are flat on the table and sees he’s pressing them so hard against the wood they’ve gone white. He lets out a slow breath and says, “Ok. I’m going to tell you something, and it’s something I really, really, really don’t like talking about. To anybody. The only other person who knows about it is my therapist, I never even talked to Maggie about it.”

Aaron turns back to him, brow furrowed, “You see a therapist?”

Paul rolls his eyes, “Of course I do, have for years. Do you think I just willed myself into my current state of zen? You obviously remember what I was like in college.”

Aaron flinches, “I’m sorry—“

“No, I’m sorry,” Paul says, “It’s forgiven, I told you that. Easier to be forgotten if I don’t throw it in your face.”

“Paul—“

He doesn’t let Aaron finish, just pushes past him, “You should really think about finding one, actually. I’ll see if mine can refer you. Anyway, like I was saying. I don’t like talking about this, so I’d appreciate if after I tell you we don’t discuss it again.”

“Ok,” Aaron says, “I promise I won’t.”

Paul lets out another slow breath, “My brother John used to come visit me after the accident. I mean, I knew he was dead, I saw his body at the funeral,” he looks down at where his hands are pressed against the table, “But I could see him, talk to him. I have clear memories of it, and he didn’t look like a ghost, he looked like John. Not at night, but…anywhere. Then one day,” Paul snaps his fingers, “I stopped seeing him. He was just gone. For good this time.”

Aaron is staring at Paul with a mixture of emotions on his face that Daryl can’t parse. After a moment where Paul looks like he’s sorting his thoughts together, he continues, “I was ten, too young to understand the idea that people were just…gone. Especially John; I couldn’t look into a mirror without seeing him until I got older and my face started to change. That’s probably why I stopped seeing him. After awhile I realized that he’d never really been there, I was just projecting what I wanted to see and hear. Conjured him up because I still needed him.”

Aaron doesn’t say anything for a long time, then he clears his throat and asks, “How? I mean, you were a kid. Why didn’t you think he’d…I dunno, crossed over?”

“John wouldn’t have left me without saying goodbye,” Paul says, the weight of conviction in his voice.

“What if he couldn’t?”

Paul gives a wry little smile, “Are we playing devil’s advocate, or are you trying to convince me that I actually saw my dead brother’s ghost? Do you believe in ghosts?”

“No, I’m not…I’m trying to understand why you’re so sure.”

“Well, years of therapy for one. For two it makes more sense. Occam’s razor. Traumatized kid imagines his brother comes back to look out for him. That’s what he’d tell me, he was looking out for his ‘baby brother’. That was the most John thing his ghost did, actually,” Paul says with a surprised laugh, “Not even death could stop him from lording over me that he was a whole seven minutes older.”

Aaron is quiet for a long time. Finally he says, “I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you talk about your brother. I mean, for the longest time I didn’t know you had one. I thought it was just your parents that died.”

“Well,” Paul says, “Parents are different, y’know? It’s awful and scary when you’re a kid but at least I had context for it. How many kids’ books have orphans for heroes? And they’re older than us, we’re prepared just a little. But not for our siblings…or…spouses. You don’t really think of outliving them, not until you’re older. They leave bigger holes in you. Can be harder to talk about.”

Aaron’s face twists, “Yeah, ok. I understand.”

“I really wish you didn’t,” Paul whispers.

“Makes two of us,” Aaron says, wiping his eyes.

“Three,” Daryl says. Paul’s story makes his heart ache; if he could leave this corner of woods then despite Merle’s everything—the asshole bit, Aaron was mistaken with the whole emotional abuse, whatever the fuck that meant—he would have gone to check on his brother. He’s pretty sure Merle is dead by now, old age or his promise to make Boyd pay has done him in. Daryl knows the only reason Merle’s ghost never found its way to Daryl’s woods was because for some reason it was impossible.

Paul waits, then lets out an amused huff, “Ok, this is why I don’t like sharing my tragic orphan backstory with people, because sometimes I worry it sounds like that scene in Jaws, when they’re comparing scars, ‘I got that beat! I got that beat!’”

Aaron gives him a confused look and Paul hurries on, “Sorry. It’s just…I was going to say another reason I have trouble talking about him is something you can’t understand,” Paul bites his lip and places his hands flat against the table again, “There’s also…seeing someone you love dead is…awful. But in my case it was also seeing exactly how I’d look dead, and for longest time I was convinced a mistake had been made, and I was supposed to be there instead,” Paul looks off, raising one hand from the table and unconsciously curling his fingers to a spot on his chest just below and to the right of his heart, “Convinced I would die somehow myself when the universe figured out it was a mistake. Therapy helped deal with it, but not as much as John telling me I was stupid for thinking that. One of the many ways he helped me get through that first year, so I decided it didn’t matter that he wasn’t ‘really’ there. I don’t think you’re crazy if you still see Eric, or talk to him, so long as it’s helping you. If you think he’s really here then he is.” Paul waits a beat, “For the record, subject is closed now.” Paul goes back to his burrito making after a few minutes. There’s silence except for the occasional crinkling of aluminum foil while Aaron mulls over everything he just said.

“That all sounds like bullshit to me,” Daryl says, voice shaking, “What do you know? This ghost shit is confusin’ even when you are one and a grownass man on top of it…a little kid, fuck, who knows?” The thought distresses Daryl and makes him feel helpless. He can’t help but think of how scary it was before Merle marked his grave, and that there are probably others just like his in the wildernesses all over the world except for smaller bones. Daryl hopes to shit this is different for little fucking kids.

Aaron makes a thoughtful noise, “Thank you for trusting me enough to share that with me,” he swallows audibly, “When you say ‘subject is closed’ do you mean ghosts in general, or just your brother’s in particular?”

“The latter,” Paul replies, “We can talk about your ghosts all you like.”

Aaron stares off out the window again, “What if the ghost you see…isn’t someone you know? Someone completely new?”

“How do you mean? Shadowy figures floating around at night? Orbs?”

Daryl thinks Aaron might hem and haw for a bit, but he comes out with it, “Last night I had a dream…it started out with me back in one of the dorms…first one I shared with Eric, you know, in Otis Hall…”

“That was BC,” Paul says, “But I know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh yeah,” Aaron says, “That must’ve been…year before you showed up…anyway—“

He sits and tells Paul all about meeting Daryl, and if reading the notes Aaron had scrawled about him was bad it’s nothing compared to this. Daryl considers going back to his grave to hide for a bit. Shit, maybe just sink down into the earth alongside his bones if he couldn’t switch off. According to Aaron, Daryl is apparently an “amazing listener” and “very insightful” and worst of all, “a really sexy biker type.” Aaron doesn’t tell everything they talked about in detail, especially the bits about Daryl’s life and some of the uglier things he now knew about it.

When Aaron’s done Paul leans against the table and folds his arms, weighing what he’s said, “Ok, two questions. One: why do you think this was an actual ghost instead of just a dream, and two: dream ghost Daryl sounds like just my type. If he’s real would he pay me a visit, d’you think?”

“Fuck off,” Daryl snaps, cheeks turning hot. When Paul stands that way Daryl can see the muscles of his arms in full definition, he’s surprisingly cut. Aaron is handsome and he’s Aaron, but this guy…fuck, if this guy walked into a bar Daryl would pick a fucking fight with him after all of thirty seconds because he just wouldn’t be able to handle it. The thought of him wanting a guy like Daryl to “pay him a visit”… “Fuck right off,” he mutters.

Aaron laughs, “I don’t know about the second question. I’ll ask him if he comes back.”

“Nah, don’t bother,” Paul says, “From what you said he sounds like he has a big, fat crush on you. Probably wants me to clear out.”

“I do not,” Daryl says, horrified, “Have a…a crush, I mean. I am startin’ to want you to clear out though. Every time I start thinking maybe you ain’t so bad you have to be a little shit ‘bout something.”

“To answer the first question,” Aaron says cheeks a little pink, “I just…I’d never seen him before. But I can picture him so well. That’s never happened to me before. I read somewhere everyone you see in a dream is someone you’ve seen before in real life, or a mishmash of people. I’ve also never had a dream where I just talked to someone without…I don’t know, their face melting or my kindergarten teacher showing up to force me to eat applesauce. Some trippy stuff happened, like the condo’s kitchen was sitting in the woods, but it was…” he gives an embarrassed smile, “just like how we’re talking now.” Aaron frowns, “I don’t believe in ghosts either. Like you, I think people are gone. But I woke up convinced this had actually happened, that he was a real person.”

“Well,” Paul says, “Then my conclusion is the same. If you think he’s real then he is, if talking to him helps you then do it. Will him into existence.”

“He did say I could write about him when I asked,” Aaron says, smiling a little.

“Well, maybe he’s a voice from your subconscious sent to help with your writer’s block. Or maybe he’s an actual sexy, brooding, ghost with a crush on you who wants to hang around. Fuck, I don’t know. I know what I think, and I also know it doesn’t matter.” Paul hesitates, “Ok, also a caveat to that: if you start talking to him, don’t stop talking to us. You don’t…if you need to hang out here alone for however long…just keep us posted, ok? We miss you down in the A-T-L. Not as just the group therapist. At least get the internet working up here and post on Facebook so we know you’re not dead in the woods somewhere.”

Aaron nods, and stares at his hands, “I’ll call everyone. Not…not today, but…just to let them know I’m sorry for taking off.” He gives an ironic tilt with his eyebrow, “Can I ask what your reassessment of the situation is? What’s your…how did this welfare check go? What’s going into your report?”

Paul doesn’t smile exactly, just the corners of his eyes crinkle and the eyes themselves sparkle. In this light Daryl thinks they look green, although he would’ve said blue a minute ago. Something in between, or neither one, maybe. “I’m going to say that poor Aaron finally had the nervous breakdown a lesser man would have had months ago, and he needs time to get his head together. But time is all he needs, really. Time and space, with occasional check-ins from us to make sure he’s feeding himself. Plus sexy ghosts to watch over him.”

“Seriously, fuck you,” Daryl mutters.

*******************************

The last thing Paul does for the day is to drag up an enormous box that contains a new TV set from where it’s been stashed downstairs in the rec room. It’d been delivered along with the furniture months and months ago, along with a box that has “Blu-ray” printed on it.

“I don’t have cable set up yet,” Aaron says as he helps Paul put up the TV. Like every other fucking bit of technology in the future it doesn’t look real, it’s huge and it’s flat and light enough they can just mount it over the fireplace. When they do Paul glances down at the photo of Aaron with Eric, eyes inscrutable. Cypher.

“Fortunately I thought ahead,” Paul replies, digging into his backpack. “It’s Christmas Eve and I’m going to watch Elf and The Muppet Christmas Carol. This is literally the only Christmas Ritual that I insist on, so I don’t care if you’re too sad and broody for festive cheer. Go downstairs or put some headphones on.”

“No,” Aaron says, eyes bright, “I…uh, I’ll watch with you. If you don’t mind me crying every now and then. We would’ve…we would’ve had a problem if you brought A Christmas Story or Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Those were Eric’s favorites.” He frowns, “I didn’t…I didn’t even realize that was today. Aren’t you…aren’t you missing the Greene family Christmas?”

“Nah, I think I’ll take off in the morning. Should be able to make it for dinner. If not it’s a full house with the Rhee invasion, I doubt I’ll be missed.”

“Mama and Papa Rhee are going to the farm?”

“They’re already there!” Paul says with a laugh, “Maggie called this morning before you woke up. She was terrified, this is the first time the in-laws have spent any time together since the wedding.”

“Are they still…” Aaron hesitates, “Are they still a little tense?”

Worse. Papa Rhee and Hershel are apparently best friends now despite the language issues. They keep following Glenn around being all fatherly and telling him what he’s in for. Poor guy. Oh, and Mama Rhee is being Mama Rhee to everyone, including Beth.”

Aaron smiles a warm, genuine smile, “I should call Glenn tomorrow.”

“Yeah, he could use some moral support from his BFF, even if said BFF is in the middle of a nervous breakdown.”

“I’ll call him,” Aaron repeats, “Which movie do you want to watch first?”

**********************

Paul sits on one end of the couch and Aaron on the other while Daryl sits between them. When they turn the skinny magic TV on Daryl thinks he can count a dude’s nose hairs with how clear and sharp the picture is, and he spends a few minutes goggling. He almost wonders if there are flying cars and shit now and they just don’t work up in the mountains.

They watch Elf first, and Daryl leans forward with his elbows on his knees. It’s the first movie he’s seen in over thirty years, and he feels almost like he did when he saw his first movie when he was a kid, hitching a ride with Merle into town to see Red River starring John Wayne.

It’s a pretty fucking funny movie, even if some of the jokes go over Daryl’s head. He still laughs at Paul and Aaron’s reactions, they’ve both obviously seen this more than once, and sometimes say lines to each other. Aaron, Daryl discovers, can do spot-on impersonations and he keeps repeating, “You sit on a throne of lies!” and making Paul crack up.

The next one is a movie that’s obviously for little kids, a version of A Christmas Carol with all the characters but a few played by goofy puppets that Daryl’s surprised to recognize. He remembers seeing some of them on TV a few years before he died and they haven’t changed much since then. It’s weirdly comforting. Unlike Elf where the two men would repeat a line or two every now and then Paul recites almost all the dialog in its entirety and sings along with all but one or two songs. If it were a movie Daryl actually cared about watching it would have driven him bugfuck but as is it’s just amusing.

The part where two ghosts show up to warn Ebenezer Scrooge Paul reaches across Daryl to poke Aaron’s side, “Here we go. I love Stadler and Waldorf, this bit kills me. ‘More than gravy than of grave! What a terrible pun!’”

Daryl didn’t warn me about expecting more ghosts tomorrow,” Aaron says, smiling a little.

“Must just be him, then.”

***************************

Paul leaves in the morning before Aaron wakes up, despite the latter saying before he went to sleep he wanted to make breakfast as a thank-you then drive him down to his car. He leaves a brief note that Daryl reads when he’s left.

Aaron—

You were still asleep and I wanted to stretch my legs. Call Glenn, or text him at least. Merry Christmas! Jesus loves you. ;)

Daryl studies the note for a few long minutes as he senses Paul moving towards the boundaries of his haunt. When he passes out of range it’s like when someone’s had a flashlight pointed at your eyes then clicked it off and you have to spend a few seconds blinking as your vision readjusts.

When Aaron gets up and sees the note his face twists into a frown. He sighs, looking out his windows again at the snow covered trees of the valley.

His fingers tap against the note for a moment and he mutters, “Will him into existence. Ok.” He hesitates a moment then says, “Hey Daryl. You there?”

“Yeah,” Daryl says.

Aaron blows out a breath, “This is stupid.”

“No it ain’t. I’m here.”

Aaron gives no indication that he’s actually heard him, but he sighs and repeats to himself, “Will him into existence.” Then, louder, “Ok, if you’re there…can I talk a bit about this book? I’m having trouble getting started.”

“You c’n talk to me ‘bout anything. Weren’t much of a reader, though. Even if you could hear me I dunno what good I’d be.”

“I used to bounce ideas off of Eric. He was good for that, for pulling me back to the story when I started going down research rabbit holes.”

“I’ll do my best,” Daryl whispers.

Chapter Text

Aaron isn’t exactly healed after Paul’s welfare check and his conversation with Daryl. Over the next several weeks he still has a lot of fucking days where he starts drinking before noon or fires up a joint first thing and jacks it to videos with titles like, Let me paint ur face with my cum. But he also has days where he spends most of his time writing, starting with Christmas Day. Daryl doesn’t think he can take credit for that, all he does is listen while Aaron talks about the story and plot details he’s having trouble with. Daryl is pretty sure that Aaron doesn’t believe he’s really there—at least not on the top of his head—and Daryl thinks he’ll throw that one on Jesus and his talk of ‘projection.’ Still, Aaron talks to him, and Daryl loves to listen. He tries communicating with Aaron a few times—flickering a light on and off, but the truth is shit like that isn’t easy when Daryl isn’t pissed as all hellfire, or in the mood to fuck with someone for his own amusement. There’s a bit of maliciousness needed for it, and it’s hard to conjure up toward Aaron. But just talking is nice, even if it doesn’t go both ways.

Aaron writes very slowly at first. On Christmas day after Paul leaves Aaron spends an hour writing and re-writing a single fucking paragraph, and just when Daryl is ready to lose his dang mind Aaron snaps his computer closed, goes to the kitchen and heats up one of Paul’s burritos, then fishes out his sleek black magic phone. He holds it in front of him instead of to his ear, taps on the screen, and Daryl hears the phone ringing.

Which is another thing Aaron starts doing—calling his friends to talk. That first day his phone rings, and rings, and Aaron looks like he’s ready to hang up when Daryl hears a young man’s voice say, “Yes? Aaron?”

Aaron smiles, “Hey, Glenn,” he sounds a little sheepish, “Thought I’d call and see if you need to run away into the mountains and have a nervous breakdown with me. I understand that your Dad and Hershel are best friends now.”

On the other end of the line Glenn lets out a slow breath, and in a deliberately casual voice says, “Yes, it’s horrible. I came in on them staring out over the farm drinking coffee and watched Dad say without a trace of irony, ‘What a country!’ and Hershel just gave him a solemn nod of agreement.”

“Remember Glenn,” Aaron says, “this is your future you’re looking at.”

“I know; I’m sure I’ll end up as some kind of Franken-dad composed of different parts of Papas Rhee and Greene.” There are a few muffled voices in the background, and Glenn tells Aaron to hold on for a second. “Aaron?” Glenn says with a long-suffering sigh, “My mom wants to talk to you.”

“Of course she does,” Aaron says, sounding smug.

A few minutes later Daryl hears the voice of an older woman pipe through the phone, “Aaron?” she says, then a string of syllables that Daryl can’t even begin to follow. He thinks he hears the word “Eric” in there at some point but he’s not sure. Whatever she says has Aaron blinking a little with bright eyes. Aaron listens thoughtfully before answering her in the same language, although he speaks far slower than she does, and at one point he stammers, pinches his nose, and snaps his fingers before spitting out a word. Fuck, Daryl remembers him saying that his family was stationed in Korea and he became friends with Glenn partly because of that fact, but hadn’t realized Aaron could actual fucking conversations with people in a different language. He can’t believe this guy described Daryl as “very intelligent”.

“Your mom said to tell you that she wishes you were more like me,” Aaron says when Glenn returns.

“Ha ha. Your Korean isn’t half as good as you think, by the way. She’s just charmed by this freakishly tall foreigner trying to talk like people.”

“Don’t be jealous that Mama Rhee loves me better than you and wishes I were her son,” Aaron says, then his eyes get bright again, “She, uh, she just wanted to check on me. Say again that she was sorry they couldn’t come to the funeral.”

“Well,” Glenn says, “we’ve been worried about you, man. It’s good to hear from you.”

“I know,” Aaron says, blinking rapidly, “I. Uh. I’m sorry I took off like I did. I’ll make it up to you,” he says, forcing his voice into something light and irreverent, “Free babysitter for life whenever I’m in town.”

“I don’t know if I trust you with the tater tot,” Glenn says, “I still remember how clumsy you used to be. So many knocked over glasses of beer and you tripping no less than five times on the way to class.”

I’m not going to babysit him, I’m rich now. I’ll hire someone.”

“I keep forgetting you’re rich,” Glenn says, “Out of all of us back in school you’re the last one I would’ve predicted ending up in the one percent.”

“Life is very strange an unexpected,” Aaron says.

“Yeah,” Glenn agrees, “Good and bad. Aaron? I’m going to have to get sincere and talk bro to bro. I…I know I’ve been busy, but I’m sorry I didn’t see you weren’t doing as ok as you seemed.”

“No!” Aaron blurts out, “God no, please…Maggie and the tater tot are top priority, I’d feel…” his voice gets shaky, “shit, I already feel terrible enough about dragging Jesus up here. Is he there yet? Will you tell him thank you again from me? He snuck out this morning before I could.”

“He hasn’t arrived yet,” Glenn says, sounding a little shaky himself. He clears his throat, going for a jokey tone, “I think he’s hiding from Hershel. Like a coward.

“Oh no,” Aaron says, “what’s it this time?”

“Well, ever since Hershel was finally able to wrap his head around the gay thing he’s been giving Jesus all these fatherly ‘you need to find a nice young man and settle down’ talks. For some reason he’s really ramped it up lately.”

Aaron bursts out laughing, “Poor Jesus. No wonder he’s hiding.”

“Jesus says he prays nightly that gay marriage is never legalized or it will be even worse.”

Aaron laughs, “I repeat: this is your future,” he swallows, “Ok, so now it’s my turn to get serious. Bro to bro: that kid is so lucky. You’re going to be a great dad.”

Bro,” Glenn says.

“Bro,” Aaron replies.

When they hang up Aaron stares out into space, not sharing his thoughts with Daryl, who over the course of this conversation has felt a growing sadness that he can’t figure out the cause of. He’s almost glad that Aaron isn’t talking to him, because he needs to turn it over in his head. Aaron had told him a bit about Hershel when they talked last night, Maggie’s dad who’d adopted “most of the GREATMS.” From Aaron’s conversation with Glenn he gathers that Hershel is someone well-loved and respected by the group despite their fond teasing. He remembers Aaron saying that Hershel had been past forty when Maggie was born and ‘a little old-fashioned’ because of it.

We’d be close to the same age, Daryl thinks, he’s about the same age as Merle, maybe a little younger.

A guy his age, who grew up in a similar world to Daryl, who in his old age was apparently fine with his daughter marrying a Korean person and having his baby, with a gay foster son he wanted to settle down with a “nice young man.” He remembered how Aaron said that Daryl was trying not to be an ignorant cuss and that mattered. He thinks how if Will Dixon had known about the queer thing he would’ve put Daryl into the ground himself. He thinks of the Savage Sons and what they got up to, their talk of how everyone not the right kind of white man they were less than dirt.

Aside from Hershel he thinks of how…easy…this Glenn guy was with Aaron. He of course remembers Aaron talking about him, saying that Glenn was one of his best friends, it just hadn’t hit him that this guy was straight. Wife and baby on the way, and he didn’t mind or seem phased by—in his words—the gay thing.

He hopes this Glenn guy eventually pays Aaron a visit, Daryl would like to meet him. So to speak.

************************************

“Fuck, man,” Daryl says, “What happens next?”

This past week Aaron has been writing steadily, fingers typing out the words so fast Daryl has trouble reading along. He’s so involved in the story he hasn’t realized that Aaron’s no longer typing and is staring at the blinking cursor. The man called Negan has just picked up an axe from the woodpile of the Everett family and paused to enjoy the weight of it in his hands. Back on Christmas day when Aaron told him a bit about the plot to this story Daryl had been skeptical that it was something he’d want to read, but he’s hooked now. In that first conversation Aaron told Daryl the story of the Battle Holler Axe Murders and why he wanted to write about it.

“I found out about it when we visited Eric’s folks,” Aaron told Daryl, “He’s from there, it’s only thirty miles or so north of here, in Tennessee. This was a big local legend, lot of fiction with fact,” Aaron gave an ironic smile, “Lots of ghost stories. Whole family murdered with an axe, the guy slipped in at night, smashed their heads in with the blunt side, and off he went. They arrested a guy for it but if you read the court documents it’s obvious he was just the local weirdo they could pin it on. And the thing is there is a string of crimes across the southeast that are the exact same MO, enough that a lot of historians are convinced it was the same guy. Then he just…stops. No more.”

“One of the families,” Aaron continued, clicking through his page of notes, “Was missing a member. All the bodies were there but she wasn’t. Little girl, it’s hard to find records, some historians think it was just a mistake…but anyways. Two questions: Who was this guy, and what happened to this girl?”

“I dunno if I’d wanna read ‘bout a psycho killing whole families and bashing in the heads of little kids,” Daryl muttered, “Them articles you were reading were bad enough.”

“It’s a hard story to tell,” Aaron said pensively, “It’s ugly. And you have to be careful not to be exploitive or revel in people’s suffering, you know? My idea was this girl, Clementine, that was her name, runs away out of guilt or fear. Somehow she wasn’t there, or saw this guy, and ran away. Survived on her own, and without knowing it crossing over and over this guy’s path, becoming a survivor. Contrasting their stories.”

“Does she do ‘im in?” Daryl asked, “That’d be badass.”

“I don’t want to go for some cliche story where she tracks him down and kills him out of revenge—”

“Well, excuse the living fuck out of my dumb redneck ass.”

“—I want to tell a story about going on with your life, even after something terrible. How even the most evil son of a bitch on the planet can’t hold a candle to someone good. Eric used to say that even though I like writing about horrible things happening to good people I was such a cornball.”

“I c’n see where he’s coming from,” Daryl murmured, “though speaking as someone who got my head bashed in I might not agree with your general conclusion. It’s not a fun experience.”

“Fuck,” Aaron muttered, “I sound stupid talking about this to you when you were murdered. What do call that? ‘Alive-splaining’?” Aaron raked a hand through those curls, “I feel stupid talking to you in general. No matter what Jesus says about ‘willing you into existence’.”

“He seems like a smart guy,” Daryl allowed, “But he’s full of shit when it comes to this.”

Now Aaron’s at the part where Negan pays a visit to Clem’s family and even though Daryl knows nothing’s going to happen to her—she’s safe in her treehouse—he still wants Aaron to write the fucking thing so he can be sure. The opening chapter of the book involved the first murder and Aaron wrote it in such horrific detail Daryl had stared at him—sweet, nice, kind Aaron—and wondered how he’d conjured this shit up. Aaron’s alternating between chapters about Negan and Clementine, and fuck if Daryl hasn’t gotten attached to her somehow and has been chewing on the corner of his thumb ever since Negan showed up.

“Ah, c’mon man,” Daryl mutters as Aaron hits “save” and closes the document. He clicks on a little logo of a fox curled up around a globe and brings up the Internet.

The motherfucking-Internet. Now that shit is something else, it still blows Daryl’s fucking mind weeks after Aaron got it hooked up. Everything is on there, Aaron just has to type some words and the Internet spits out articles and pictures and videos. There doesn’t seem to be an end to it, and Daryl wishes he could figure out how to manipulate things to try playing around on it himself. It’s an easy thing to get distracted by, even someone who is used to it as Aaron is, and Daryl thinks that probably his most useful contribution to his friend’s writing is—once he got over his slack-jawed goggling—fucking up the connection. He does it automatically when Aaron snoops around for new porn videos, and conditionally whenever he spends too much time on what he calls “research rabbit holes” or starts arguing with people on a thing called Twitter. Although less often in the latter case, that shit is entertaining as fuck.

Daryl waits to see what it’s going to be, and lets out a hiss of frustration when it turns out to be the Facebook. That damn thing might be Daryl’s favorite and least favorite thing on the Internet. He can never make himself cut off the Internet when Aaron is looking through pictures and shit on it. And there are tons of pictures, everybody seems to have their own special page linked to everyone else’s and there’s thousands and thousands of pictures altogether. Most of Aaron’s pictures have Eric in them, and there are even more video clips.

That’s another thing Aaron still does—watch videos of Eric. Only now he cries when he does, like he sometimes cries when looking at the Facebook.

There are a lot of pictures of Aaron’s friends, and Daryl finally has faces to put to names thanks to the Facebook’s handy labelling system. Sometimes when Aaron’s cried out from looking at pictures of Eric he’ll switch over to pictures of his friends and smile.

All the pictures are organized in little albums on Aaron’s page, and Daryl’s…not favorite, but the one he thinks about the most is one album labelled “Atlanta Pride 2008”. Aaron explained to Daryl what that was when they talked and he didn’t quite believe it was a thing, especially in Atlanta. But one day Aaron pulled up that album and clicked through the pictures while Daryl sat behind him goggling.

He saw a picture of Sasha and Rosita. Sasha is a a very pretty black woman with a long, elegant neck, large eyes, and a massive quantity of hair that floats above her shoulders. She’s wearing a leather jacket over a shirt that has “Atlanta Dyke March” written on the front. Rosita looks like she’s Mexican or something like that, her long glossy black hair is done up in pigtails under a cap. She has pouty lips, tan skin, and is just as pretty as her girlfriend. She’s dressed in a pair of daisy dukes, a black bikini top, and has a purple, blue,and pink flag over her shoulders like a cape. They’re holding hands and posing with two elderly women in shirts that read “Together since ’76!”

Another picture,this one of Aaron giving the goofiest grin Daryl’s ever seen, one eyebrow quirked. His curls are contained by a trucker hat with a rainbow and the words GAY AF on the brim, and he’s wearing a white raglan shirt with black sleeves and “Pass the brick, Marsha!” written in rainbow letters. He’s carrying a laughing Eric piggyback. Eric’s shirtless and his arms are locked firmly around Aaron and his cheek is pressed into his shoulder.

The next picture was of a group of people holding signs that say things that Daryl’s a tad more familiar with— “HOMO SEX IS SIN!” “TURN TO THE LORD OR BURN!” “JESUS HATES YOU!” In front of them Daryl sees Paul dressed in full Jesus costume complete with a crown of thorns. One hand is outstretched, his head tilted back with his eyes heavenward in imitation of countless paintings Daryl’s seen in church. He’s holding a sign in his other hand that reads, “I’m not with these assholes”. Aaron pauses when he sees it and snorts out a laugh before moving on. The next photo is of the same scene only instead of just standing there Paul is being dipped back into a kiss by a big, muscular blond guy in a leather harness and chaps that show his bare ass to the world. Both of them are giving the protestors the middle finger. Aaron’s face fades from a smile into the single bitchiest scowl Daryl’s ever seen him make and he quickly clicks on to the next picture.

More pictures of Aaron with Eric, then a picture of a straight couple—a seriously handsome Asian guy who has glass cutter cheekbones and soft pink lips who is arm and arm with a pretty green-eyed woman and seriously, were Aaron and his friends grown in a fucking lab or something? Facebook confirms to Daryl that this is Maggie and Glenn. They’re wearing matching shirts that with logos of a heart intertwined with a triangle and the letters PFLAG. Maggie’s carrying a sign that reads, “PROUD of my gay brother!”

There’s pictures of gay guys in leather and fairy wings, lesbians riding motorcycles that would’ve given Merle a massive envy-boner if he could’ve seen them, people who Daryl can’t tell if they are men dressed as women or the other way around, a group of men and women dressed in uniform carrying a massive banner that screams out “REPEAL DADT”.

So yeah, Daryl thinks about that album a lot. Aaron only looked at it the once and Daryl can recall the images clear as day. He can’t imagine ever going to Pride or even wanting to, all those people crowding around, flesh on display, every single thing Merle’d ever said about what gay men and dykes (fuck, he wished he could ask Aaron if dykes was ok, he thought it wasn’t but Sasha had that shirt)were like on display large as life. But. But…Aaron and his friends looks so happy, so unafraid to go out, and there were so goddamned many people there, and only a handful of assholes trying to get it shut down. It gives Daryl a feeling that is equal parts hopeful and melancholy, and he’d really like to look at it again but so far Aaron hasn’t revisited it.

Today when Aaron pulls up the Facebook the first thing Daryl sees is a message from Tara at the top of his page:

HE’S HERE! FINALLY! HERSHEL ERIC RHEE! Born January 16th 2012! Mom and son are doing great! Dad, Grandpa, and Hal-bi can’t stop crying because men are weak.”

Aaron sits up straight, a smile spreading across his face. He goes poking around, pulling up a picture on Glenn’s page of Maggie with her face red and shiny holding a fat-cheeked newborn who already has a mop of dark hair. Another picture of Glenn wearing a hair net, hospital gown, and mask holding the baby. Only his eyes are visible above the mask, but that’s enough for Daryl to tell just how hard he’s smiling.

Aaron keeps poking around, smiling more and more with every pictures of little Hershel being held by various friends and family, some Daryl recognizes and some he doesn’t. He finally sees a picture of the elder Hershel, an old man with snow white hair. He’s a big guy, and little Hershel looks ridiculously small in his arms. Another picture of the elder Hershel. Paul is in this one, holding the baby and smiling while the elder Hershel has a hand on his shoulder and is beaming down at them both.

When he’s run out of pictures to look at Aaron goes to his email box and types out a quick letter:

Hey bro—

Saw all the hubbub on Facebook. The kid is stupidly cute, thankfully he takes after Maggie. Seriously though, I can’t congratulate you enough and I’m so happy for you. I can’t wait to meet him.

Which I’m not sure when it will be. I need some more time up here. I’m going to have to beg your forgiveness for that along with the other stuff.

Glenn doesn’t respond for a few days, and his message is even shorter—

Take all the time you need. We’ve decided to keep him so he’ll be here when you’re ready. (Sorry this is short but I’m so tired)

*****************************

March brings the anniversary of Eric’s death. As the day approaches Aaron does the opposite of what Daryl expects—instead of hitting the booze or smoking grass or watching porn he goes into a frenzy of writing. Instead of his routine of breakfast, a short hike, and reading the news he doesn’t bother getting dressed, just stumbles down in his pajama bottoms and plants himself in front of the computer and doesn’t stop to eat lunch and barely gets up to piss. After two months of watching Aaron write and re-write, seeing how he’ll pick a different word or change a scene—Daryl’s got a better idea of what good writing is. The week leading up to the anniversary of Eric’s death is not his best work.

He doesn’t sleep the night before, and the day of he turns off his computer, packs a picnic lunch and a bottle of champagne, his picture of him with Eric, and heads out for a hike in the valley.

Daryl follows at a distance, close enough in case Aaron gets into any trouble but far enough to give him and Eric some privacy. Aaron stays out for a long time, and when he comes back his eyes are blood shot and his face is red and blotchy. He heats up one of the last of Paul’s burritos for his dinner, picking at it without eating much. As the evening stretches into full night Aaron picks up his phone, takes a steadying breath, and dials a number.

“Aaron, baby,” a woman’s voice says. She has the full version of Eric’s mountain twang, “I was hoping to hear from you today.”

“Hey Robertha,” Aaron says, “I just wanted to see how you were doing.”

“It was a hard day, sweetheart. I drove down to Atlanta with Miss Pam to visit Eric, we just got back.”

“I’m sorry, if I’d known you were coming down I would have met you…”

“That’s ok,” the woman—Robertha, says, “I figured you’d be up there working and didn’t need two fussy old ladies over you.”

“You’re always welcome to fuss over me,” Aaron says, “I, uh…there’s this spot up here, where we used to hike when we were in school. I took a picnic up and just…talked to him for a bit.”

“Oh, he would’ve loved that,” Robertha says, “Sweet boy was always happiest outdoors. I’m glad you talk to him, I do too. He can hear us all the way in heaven.”

“I hope so,” Aaron says.

“I know so,” Robertha says, “He’s in heaven alongside his Lord and Savior and he’s not hurting anymore. We’re the ones hurting because we miss him, but we’ll see him again.”

Aaron shifts awkwardly before saying, “Well, if anyone deserves heaven it’s Eric.”

“I saw some of your friends when I was at the cemetery,” she says after a pause, “that nice Chinese boy and his pretty wife. Oh no, sorry, he’s not Chinese, it’s something else…”

“He’s Korean,” Aaron says, in the tone of voice that says this is something he has corrected her on more than once and expects to do again.

“Yes, that’s it! They didn’t have their little one with them, but showed me pictures. He’s adorable, I showed them some of Eric’s baby pictures.”

They chat for a few more minutes, and finally Aaron says goodbye, and if she ever needs anything he’s not far away.

“God Daryl, I am so fucking glad that’s over with. I feel like such an asshole for wanting to tell his mom to shut up about that ‘better place’ stuff. Even if I believed that was true I’d rather have him here.”

“Don’t be a dick, I’m sure she feels the same,” Daryl mutters.

Aaron sighs, “Sometimes…it’s hard. I know she loved Eric, and he loved her, but she’s more than a little racist and homophobic. She was never…it took her a long time for her to stop telling Eric he was going to hell if he kept seeing me. Now she thinks he’s in heaven; not because there’s nothing wrong with him being in love with me, but because she thinks Jesus forgave him it. I’m just his best friend who misses him,” Aaron says bitterly.

“Better than what my Daddy woulda said if he knew ‘bout me.”

“Sometimes I just hate…how I’m expected to be grateful that she meets that bare minimum. Never threatened to disown him. My parents did, when they found out about me. I haven’t spoken to either one of them since I told them I was going straight to college without enlisting and I told them why.”

“Yeah, you said that when we talked,” Daryl murmurs, “Said you don’t regret it.” 

Daryl had trouble believing it at first, the idea of just…cutting your blood, your kin out of your life without looking back went against everything he knew about family. You didn’t abandon your blood no matter how big of an asshole they were.

Merle’s voice as he knelt over Daryl’s grave comes to him, He was my brother even if he was a queer.

Daryl looks down at his hands, he’s twisting them in his lap. When he looks back at Aaron the other man is tapping around on his phone, and Daryl drifts over to read over his shoulder. The little icon of an envelop tells Aaron he has 9+ new messages from all sorts of people, although the ones Daryl cares most about are:

Message from Sasha Williams:

Thinking of you today. Missing you both like crazy, “Breaking Bad” nights aren’t the same without Eric gasping and clutching my hand every five seconds while you nerd out over the writing…

 

Message from Glenn Rhee:

Just wanted to write and tell you how much I love you, bro. Oh, and Maggie and I ran into Robertha when we went to visit Eric, she still talks to me very loudly and slowly…

 

Message from Tara Chambler:

I keep trying to think up something funny to say because I know today you probably could use a laugh but I can’t come up with anything. Love you…

 

Message from Maggie Rhee:

Hi sweetie. Glenn and I think of you whenever we take little Hershel for a walk in the neighborhood. I remember how half the time before we’d run into you guys and go to the Brickstore for beers. Still look around and expect to see you…

 

Message from Rosita Espinosa:

I was going through pictures on Facebook last night and I found this one of me and Eric when he came to one of my softball games. I miss that sweet face so much…

 

Message from Paul Rovia:

First one is usually the hardest. Let me know if you need any more burritos. Jesus loves you!

 

Every single message implores Aaron to please call if he needs anything, and after a moment Aaron pulls up his contacts and scrolls down to the “J’s”.

Paul picks up after the second ring, “Hey, Aaron.”

“Hey,” Aaron says, “It’s me. Sorry, I hope I’m not interrupting—“

“No, just winding down for the night. Playing Skyrim.”

“Video games? I always imagine you winding down as doing some weird yoga or meditating,” Aaron says, “you’re not staying on brand, Jesus.”

“I do yoga in the mornings, and fuck meditating,” Paul replies, “I’m glad to hear from you. I’ve been thinking about you today. Obviously.”

“Going to ask me how I’m doing?”

“Do you want to talk about how you’re doing?”

Aaron sighs, “Not really. Maybe. Yes.”

Paul makes a thoughtful little noise, “Yeah, I can guess you’re not doing well. First one’s tough. I mean, they all are, but that first one is a killer. But it’s almost over.”

“His birthday in September was worse,” Aaron says, “Because the entire day I kept thinking there was something I had to do, a place I had to be. And the month before I kept thinking to myself, ‘I need to remember to pick up something for Eric’s birthday.’ But today was pretty bad. I didn’t…I thought of coming back to Atlanta today, to visit his grave. But we had a picnic instead, out on Winslow Rock—“

“I think he’d be happier with that,” Paul says.

“It’s weird,” Aaron says, and bites his thumb, “I…you remember me telling about how I dreamed of a ghost—“

“Of course I remember Sexy Dream Ghost Daryl, even if he didn’t pay me a visit. I guess he’s a one man ghost, the one man being you.”

It’s a pointless gesture but Daryl still raises his middle finger at the phone.

“Well, he told me Eric wasn’t gone, might be where he was buried, but thought he’d moved on,” Aaron huffs out a laugh, “I…when he said it, it was comforting. I believed it. Just thinking about how I’m a hypocrite because I talked to Robertha earlier and she gave me the he’s ‘in heaven with Jesus now spiel’,” A smile flickers across Aaron’s face, “Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of East Atlanta.”

Paul chuckles, “I figured, we all know Jesus of East Atlanta is only getting into heaven if he picks the lock. But anyway, I don’t think you’re a hypocrite if you trust sexy dream ghost Daryl over Robertha. He has firsthand knowledge.”

“Quit calling me that, asshole,” Daryl mutters, even though Jesus couldn’t hear him even if he was standing in the room.

“But like I said, it will be over soon, and the first one is the toughest for most people.”

“Was it for you?” Aaron replies.

“Yeah. Well, it’s tied with the eleventh. That was the one where it hit me I’d officially lived without him longer than I’d lived with him. Also by then I thought I was over the bad ones so wasn’t expecting it. You might get hit with something like that, but…I mean, it’s all very personal, you know?”

Aaron’s swallows and his voice is thick, “Is it…is it fucked up if I say I’m glad to hear it can still hurt a decade from now? Today I kept thinking about what you said, about sometimes the worst is that you can go on and things start getting better, and I…I’ve been doing a lot better since I got here. I was…I was glad how much it hurt today.”

Paul’s quiet, “Grief’s part of the deal, it’s a sign of how much we love someone. It should hurt sometimes,” he’s quiet again, “But it doesn’t always, and when it does get better it doesn’t mean we loved someone any less, or stopped missing them. That’s part of the deal too, going on.” Paul hesitates again, “I…I’m glad to hear it’s been better.”

“Yeah, I started writing again,” Aaron says, “I’ve written almost sixty thousand words since Christmas, and I think maybe five thousand are worth a damn. Progress. I’m at a pretty big turning point now in the book, the hard part, the setup is finished—“

“No spoilers,” Paul says, and Daryl hears a smile in his voice.

Aaron smiles, “No spoilers. But I’m at a point…” he fiddles with his fingers, “I was thinking it’s a good time to take a break. Just a week or two. Come back to Atlanta and meet little Hershel. I was wondering if…” Aaron swallows, “Will you talk to the others about maybe…I can’t clean out Eric’s things, but I was thinking of boxing up some stuff—not just his—so I can bring it up here. Make this place more homey.”

“I think that’s a great idea,” Paul says, “I think I speak for everyone when I say it won’t be a problem. I mean, Glenn and Maggie won’t be able to do much, they’re practically zombies from sleep deprivation…oh my god, have you seen any of Tara’s “Will it Wake Glenn” videos?

“No, what are they?”

“I won’t spoil it, just go to her Youtube page if you need a laugh. I’m even in one.”

“Will do. Goodnight, Paul.”

He hangs up the phone and runs a hand over his face as Daryl stares at him with his heart in his throat.

Take a break. Just a week or two.

Daryl knows he’s being selfish, knows he’s the world’s biggest asshole to want Aaron to stay up in a cabin talking to a ghost instead of with all these friends who so clearly love him. But.

What if he doesn’t come back?

“Just a week or two, right?” Daryl says. Aaron, of course, doesn’t respond.

 

*****************************************

Chapter Text

As a consequence of being dead Daryl’s sense of time is fucked up in general, but the ten days that Aaron is in Atlanta are something else. Time crawls, whereas before he could spend hours just watching anything from a hill of ants to following a pack of coyotes as they gambol through the valley now absolutely nothing interests him. Even spotting a rare bobcat only causes a flicker, and that’s because he wishes Aaron were there to see it. When they go on hikes together Daryl is obviously unable to point out any wildlife he sees but cats of any kind—like the crows and ravens—always seem to know he’s there. Also like the crows and ravens they seem more fascinated than afraid, and Daryl is sure he could’ve lured it out to show Aaron.

He starts doing a restless circuit from his grave up to the cabin, drifting around the empty rooms for a bit, sometimes stretching out on his back on Aaron’s bed before heading down the dirt road that leads to the outside world. His range stops just before it meets the small county road that leads into Blue Ridge, and when Daryl goes far enough everything turns foggy and he ends up right back at his grave to repeat the process. This sort of pacing is something he hasn’t done since the first years of his death and was trying to work out just what the boundaries of his haunt were. It’d been tricky at first, as his grave wasn’t in the dead center of where he could go. He found that north and east—which was nothing but wilderness except for the bit of the Appalachian Trail and its overnight shelter—stretched out farther than south and west which—if he has his geography straight—contains more people and civilization.

There’s also the gnawing fear that Aaron just won’t come back, that he’ll stay in Atlanta with his friends, maybe only come up here on weekends until he sells the place or keeps it only because he promised Eric. Rent it out to tourists instead of come up himself. Find a new place to hike and a new guy to go on hikes with. One that’s alive and can talk back to him instead of one that’s a memory and another that is a ghost. Daryl knows that this is what should happen sooner or later, but he’s a big enough asshole he can’t help but hope it’s later.

He’s also a big enough asshole to feel nothing but jubilation when the big black Jeep pulls up to the cabin just before sunset on the tenth day. Unlike when he came up in December Aaron looks well-rested and just…lighter. He’s gotten a haircut to tame his curls and has trimmed his wild man beard to something a bit more respectable. His cheeks seem fuller, like he hasn’t been skipping as many meals. He looks very different from the man Daryl first saw—fuck, close to two years ago now—but he also looks very different from that haggard and grief-stricken man who came in December.

“Hey Daryl,” Aaron says when he walks through the door—as though Daryl hadn’t gone outside to meet him as soon as he sensed he was in range, “I’m back, hope you were able to get some rest while I was gone. Switch off.”

Daryl snorts, “Guess I did a piss poor job of explaining switching off if you think I coulda done it while I was waitin’ for you,” he licks his lips and fidgets, “I, uh. I missed you.”

“I missed being here, talking to you,” Aaron continues. He gives a rueful smile, “Even if you’re just a projection. Maybe because you can’t make any judgmental comments when I say some things. Even though I know you’re thinking them.”

“I ain’t a projection,” Daryl mutters, “Paul’s an asshole, you ain’t gotta listen to him when it comes to this.”

“It’d be nice to dream about you again,” Aaron murmurs, “Jesus asked me if I had more visits from ’sexy dream ghost Daryl’ when I saw him.”

Such a fucking asshole,” Daryl mutters, “I wish you’d dream about me too. I try all the time to do it again, but I don’t know how.”

****************************************

“Goddmanit,” Daryl snaps, “Sit still for five fucking seconds, man.”

Aaron is on a hike and attempting to follow the foot prints of the bobcat. The guy isn’t totally clueless when it comes to shit—he knows what plants can be eaten and he knows the basics of tracking, enough to recognize what the prints of different animals are. But he’s not knowledgable enough to know how fresh these tracks are, and that his quarry is perched in a tree watching him with slit-pupil eyes. If the lanky son of a bitch would just chill out and wait Daryl’s pretty sure he could lure the cat down close enough for Aaron to see it.

He’s been trying to show it to Aaron ever since he returned from his trip to Atlanta over two months ago. By some miraculous coincidence the thing has set up its den and territory just off of the hiking route Aaron’s been taking ever since spring started to turn to summer. Aaron passes only a few feet from where its curled up sleeping most afternoons and if he’d just stop every once and a while…

Aaron frowns when he loses the cat’s trail, casting around. After a few minutes he sighs, pulls out his canteen, and sits down on a pile of rocks while he sips some water. He pulls out his little phone thing that also has the fucking internet on it and starts tapping around.

“Do not move,” Daryl mutters, then drifts back toward the treed bobcat.

When it becomes aware of him it freezes, not in fear, but in wide-eyed excitement. Like a kitten spotting a dangling bit of yarn. Daryl makes that stupid little clicking noise with his mouth people make when they see a normal house cat and wiggles his fingers. The cat crouches down, does that little butt-wiggle thing, and pounces.

Daryl can’t help it, he laughs. The bobcat’s look of sheer astonishment that those fingers weren’t there even is just too goddamned hilarious. “C’mon,” he says, “Someone I want you to meet.”

Aaron still has his nose buried in his phone when Daryl emerges from the brush, leading the cat on by wiggling his fingers a few feet away, letting it pounce, then moving another few feet. It’s a painstaking process and Daryl vows to switch off the Internet for the remainder of the summer if Aaron fails to take note.

The movement, thankfully, catches the corner of Aaron’s eye and he looks up. His eyes fall on the bobcat and he freezes before an astonished grin of pure delight crosses his face. Daryl can clearly see the boy he was in that moment, and doesn’t think he’s seen Aaron so purely happy since he arrived back in December. After a few minutes where the bobcat pounces up and down trying hopelessly to get ahold of Daryl’s fingers Aaron slowly raises his phone and taps the screen a few times(because apparently his little magic phone not only has the internet but also takes pictures and videos and gives hand jobs for all Daryl knows).

The cat freezes, becoming aware of Aaron for the first time, eyes wide and pupils comically huge. It looks like it’d just been rolling around in catnip and was coming down from the high. It stares at Aaron for a split second, shoots up straight in the air, and bounds off. Daryl hears Aaron laugh, and it warms him all the way down to his bones that are currently resting a few miles away beneath the ridge.

“Don’t that beat all, I love them fuckers,” Daryl says as he settles down on the rocks next to Aaron. He glances down at the phone and sees that Aaron is already uploading the pictures to his Facebook, he got a couple good ones including a blurry shot of the bobcat mid-jump.

Say something about these photos commands Facebook, and Daryl smiles when Aaron types:

Made a new friend today. :)

***************************

“Holy fuck, man,” Daryl says as Aaron types the words “The End”. It’s mid-July, his beard is back to full wild man status, and in the past week he’s barely moved from his computer, has even taken it up to bed with him a few times. And now it’s done, and it’s a helluva story. Daryl started cheering when Negan met his grisly end, it was one of the most satisfying things he’d ever read. Until the very end, when Clem is reunited with Gabriel Garcia, a boy she made friends with when she first started running. Daryl’s gotten fucking soft in his death, because he’s pretty sure there’s a tear in his eyes.

Daryl leans forward and puts his hand on Aaron shoulder. Positive emotions and happiness are fucking hard to pass on, unlike rage and ugliness. Daryl’s pretty sure it’s because living memories are the strongest and all his happiest moments have all taken place after his death. Within the past seven months, in fact. Still, he concentrates as hard as he can, focusing all his energy into a crude message

(Good job loved it you got this)

Aaron sighs, rolls his neck to the side and back causing it to let out several loud pops. He raises a hand to rub the back of his neck and for the briefest of instances his hand brushes Daryl’s own.

Aaron sighs again, hits “save”, and closes the document. He leans back in his chair, tilts his head back, and says, “Fuck. It’s terrible.”

“Are you bullshitting me?” Daryl sputters, “I know I’m a barely literate bit of white trash but that was one of the best dang stories I ever read.”

Aaron pinches the bridge of his nose, “I felt this way about the first draft of the last one. Eric made me take a week away from it and do absolutely nothing but have fun. We went to Disneyworld.”

“Ain’t you two a bit old for that?” Daryl says.

“Except for obligatory visits to The Haunted Mansion we spent most of the trip at the hotel fucking so much I thought my dick was going to rupture,” Aaron says.

“Well, I guess that’s something more appropriate for your age. Maybe you should…”

Daryl’s heart sinks as he realizes what this probably means. Aaron will want to go away for a bit, somewhere fun, maybe even for as long as a week.

Maybe even longer.

Since March he’s gone back to Atlanta five times. Three were just for long weekends, two were day trips and he was back by dark. He goes into Blue Ridge every now and again for dinner or for one of the countless festivals that take place in the summer months. He’s even gone to visit Carol’s church a few times to Daryl’s surprise, he knows Aaron isn’t religious. Aaron didn’t explain it to him, in fact the only way he knew about it in the first place was Aaron called to talk to Paul about it.

“I went to an actual service in a Christian church today. Of my own free will.”

“Aaron, if there’s someone in the room holding a gun on you pretend to order a pizza and I’ll dial 911.”

Aaron laughs, “My uh…the woman who takes care of this place invited me when I ran into her in town. She assured me it was a very modern and welcoming place, got started when ‘new people started moving into town’.”

“Code for the pastor doesn’t think gay people should be stoned to death prior to being sent to hell?”

“No,” Aaron says with a thoughtful smile, “It was…a modern and welcoming place. Big emphasis on social justice, serving the community…lots of Jesus talk still thrown in there.”

“Of Nazareth rather than East Atlanta,” Paul says, “way less fun but probably just as gay. I mean, thirteen virile young men following him around?”

“Anyway, the preacher is amazing. Guy called Ezekiel, talk about a character. I’m definitely putting him in a book. Maybe a kid’s book where he’s some kind of King Arthur type.”

“I didn’t know you wanted to write kids books.”

“You’re going to think this is corny…”

“Naturally.”

“…But I want something that Hershel will be able to read before too long. Little Hershel, I mean.”

“He’s four months old, you have time.”

“It’s been over three years since my first book was published and I’m still stuck on the second. Next one is going to be about Daryl, and…well. It might take a long time to get that one right.”

“You had some pretty extenuating circumstances,” Paul says quietly.

“I know,” Aaron says just as quietly, “But…I don’t take certain things for granted anymore.”

Daryl’s hand is still on Aaron’s shoulder as the memory of this conversation comes to him, and later he will wonder if that was the reason Aaron pulled up the Internet and went to Tara’s YouTube page. Like Daryl had accidentally put the suggestion in his head, or they’d both had Paul Rovia on their minds.

Aaron goes to her playlists and pulls up one titled “Will it Wake Glenn?” then scrolls down to the video titled “Queen’s attempt”, pulls it up, and clicks play.

Daryl leans forward over his shoulder; he’s seen this video before but he doesn’t mind watching it again, all the “Will it Wake Glenn?” videos are fucking funny.

The video starts and he sees Tara sitting in a car, her face completely straight, although during the course of her upcoming speech there’s a few times where she has to pause to keep herself from laughing.

“Hello everyone,” she says in the quiet, serious voice of the NPR newscasters Aaron sometimes listens to, “It’s time for another episode of Will it Wake Glenn? Today’s special guest—“ at this point the camera pans over to where Paul is driving, or would be if traffic weren’t at a standstill, “Is our Lord and Savior, Jesus himself. Say hello, Jesus.”

“Hello,” Paul says, grinning.

The camera twists back to Tara, “Let us begin. For those of you unfamiliar with the rules: our friend and new dad Glenn Rhee—“ the camera shifts to the backseat where the man in question is out cold, mouth open and face pressed against the window, then back to Tara, “has fallen asleep in a random spot. We will see what it takes to wake him, anything goes except for the magic words. Today, Jesus and I will try,” she holds up a CD, “The Best of Queen. Will it wake Glenn?”

Aaron is already grinning at this part, eyes sparkling.

In the video Tara has turned the music on, and Daryl hears the opening notes of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Aaron grins wider as Paul starts to sing along with the opening bit. He has a helluva voice even if it’s not on the level of Queen. The music is pretty loud as is Paul’s singing. He puts a lot of effort into it, hamming it up with exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures.

The camera cuts away from him to where Glenn is asleep in the backseat. The guy hasn’t moved. His breath and drool are fogging the window. Aaron barks out a laugh even though he’s seen this before more than once.

The rest of the song plays out, Tara joining Jesus for the “Mama mia, mama mia!” bit. By the end both of them are belting it out together, air drumming and thrashing their heads along to the music. Tara has a good sense of timing, whenever the music peaks she cuts back to where Glenn is still out cold, zooming in on the drool dangling from his lips. It gets funnier and funnier with each cut. Aaron and Daryl are both in stitches by this point, and the money shot comes at the end when the song has finished and Glenn hasn’t stirred.

“Say the magic words, Jesus!” Tara says.

“Glenn! Maggie’s calling you, the baby’s crying!”

Glenn jerks awake with a loud snort, eyes wide and blinking, “Wha, Maggie…” The camera remains on Glenn but in the background Paul and Tara can be heard completely fucking losing it.

Aaron is also losing it, smiling a similar smile to the one he wore when Daryl showed him the bobcat awhile back. After a few minutes where he taps his finger restlessly against the keys he pulls up his email and scrawls a quick message to tchambler@gmail.com and paulhchrist@gmail.com.

Hey guys—

I’m finished with my first draft! I need to take some time to have fun and not think about it for a few weeks. I was watching the “Will it Wake Glenn” videos and thought I was going to rupture something. Would one or both (the latter, preferably!) of you want to come up here for a few days? Pretend we’re back in school and go hiking, cook out, have too much to drink…

“Hey, don’t I get a say in whether we have company,” Daryl mutters. Paul had better keep that “sexy dream ghost” shit to himself if he comes.

***********************************

“Has sexy dream ghost Daryl made any appearances?” Paul asks Aaron when he and Tara arrive a week later.

Fuckhead,” Daryl snarls. Paul’s commentary is made even worse by the way the man’s dressed. Not swaddled in eight billion layers so he can walk through the snow, but in a sleeveless blue shirt that shows off his toned arms and is fitted enough that Daryl can see a trace of his nipples and abdominal muscles.

Paul and Tara came up after work on Friday and are staying through until Monday night. Daryl can tell it’s already going to be a long weekend, could tell when he sensed the two of them crossing the boundary of his haunt. Again he feels it like a knife to the gut or a boot to the head.

“Ooh, a ghost?” Tara says, “Is this place haunted?”

Aaron looks embarrassed and a little annoyed, which Paul sees immediately, “Private joke between me and Aaron. No ghosts.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Tara says, “Always loved a good ghost story.”

“We have our very own successful novelist here to spin us a few ghost stories,” Paul says, “You’ll have to break out a few tonight.” He mouths “sorry” at Aaron when Tara’s attention turns to the big picture windows overlooking the valley.

“This place is amazing,” she says softly as she takes in the view. It’s sunset, the woods are shadows and the blue mountains can be seen off in the distance.

“Yeah,” Paul says, looking around thoughtfully. The cabin is very different from how it was when he was here for Christmas. The plastic sheets have been removed from all furniture for a start, and Aaron has added some faggy shit like throw pillows and decorative blankets over everything. In addition to that every time he goes down to Atlanta he comes back with a bit more stuff—pictures, artwork, little odds and ends, and fuckloads of books. The rarely-used by Aaron downstairs is where he keeps most of them, the walls are lined with shelves. Daryl stares at them in frustration some nights while Aaron sleeps—living with a dang writer has awoken his inner reader. Upstairs in Aaron’s little office alcove is a shelf that contains what Daryl gathers are his favorites. Daryl skims the titles sometimes—The Master and Margarita, The Known World, The Complete His Dark Materials, Michonne Grimes: Three Plays, Middlesex, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, In Cold Blood, Complete Works of Ray Bradbury vol I, Invisible Cities, Beloved, and dozens more, including an entire shelf of books whose titles Daryl can’t even read because they use a whole different alphabet that he assumes is Korean. Daryl’s curious if any of them are the sorts of books he’d like to read. Anyhow, all of it makes the cabin looks like the sort of place someone lives instead a place they go to have a nervous breakdown.

The cabin is properly exclaimed over, and Aaron takes the two of them downstairs to show them their rooms. In the days leading up to Paul and Tara’s arrival Aaron spent more time in the downstairs area than he had in the entire seven months prior. Cleaning, Dusting, and setting up the ping-pong table (no pool table, not yet). Washed the bedding that Paul bought months ago even though no one’s slept in it yet. Stocked the bathroom with shampoo and hand soap and toilet paper. Chased a few spiders down, trapped them under a glass, and tossed them outside as Daryl rolled his eyes and asked, “Y’know they’re just going to creep back in, right?”

“Did you do a spider sweep?” Tara asks as she examines her room.

“Yes,” Aaron says, smiling a little, “I made sure there were none down here before you came.”

“Did you crush them like the demonic spawn of satan they are, or did you take them outside where they can just crawl in?”

“Crushed them,” Aaron replies.

“Liar,” Daryl says.

“Tell the truth, Aaron,” Paul says.

“What? I smashed them all with a shoe and flushed their broken corpses down the toilet. Even though they’re our friends and just want to chill out catching bugs and being our bros.”

“They can do that outside, in the woods,” Tara says.

“So what difference does it make if they were crushed or set free to be useful members of society out in the woods?” Aaron asks.

“The survivors need to warn their friends what will happen if they enter the house,” Tara says, “And they deserve it. Jesus, I’m going to need you to do a spot check of my room because I know you’ll do what needs to be done.”

“I’m on it,” he says.

***************************************

That first night is too late for the three friends to do anything more strenuous than make dinner—shish kabobs that Aaron fixes on the grill he just bought a few days ago—then sit out on the porch in the rockers that Aaron has also only recently purchased. There are four chairs, and the the three living people sit down while Daryl takes the fourth. He’d prefer to sit next to Aaron, but the man was immediately sandwiched in between Tara and Paul. Daryl takes the fourth rocker next to Paul and the living and the dead stare out at the valley without speaking. Twilight has passed, the valley is black but for the stars are peeking out and at and a three quarter moon rising up from behind the distant mountains.

Aaron gets up to fetch another bottle of wine—the three of them have already used two bottles to wash down dinner—and Tara yells at Aaron to hook her iPod up to the speaker system while he’s in there.

“Pull up the ‘college radio’ play list,” she says, “If we really want to board the nostalgia train.”

A few minutes later dreamy guitar music emerges from the speakers and Aaron emerges with a bottle of wine under each arm, and says, “Daryl might fuck with the connection, he doesn’t always like what I listen to.”

“Who’s Daryl?” Tara says.

“Oh,” Aaron says, cheeks turning pink, “the ghost.”

“I thought Jesus said that was just a joke,” she says accusingly.

“It is,” Aaron says, and even though Daryl knows he doesn’t mean it the words still sting. “I mean, not a joke…just a…

A ghost,” Paul says, “one real or imagined.”

“So there is a ghost.”

“Like Jesus said,” Aaron replies, fidgeting, “it’s just a…well, just a story I tell myself.”

“I want to hear about the ghost,” Tara says, and when Aaron gives her a very abridged version of his conversation with Daryl—one that thankfully leaves out a physical description as well as how he died, “Ok. So the ghost is real. Daryl, if you’re here then I’m Tara and nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you,” Daryl says, lips twitching. He doesn’t know if she’s just talking shit but he likes her all the same.

“I never bothered to introduce myself when I was here last,” Paul says meditatively, “Maybe that’s why he never paid my dreams a visit. Hi Daryl, I’m Jesus and if you’re feeling lonely then please feel free to stop by my dream.”

“Get fucked, you little shit.”

****************************

The following morning after a lazy start the three friends get dressed in hiking clothes and head out into the valley. The day is hot enough even Daryl can tell, a heavy stillness in the air. All three of them are sweating and passing the canteen around, laughing and talking. Daryl drifts after them, enjoying their conversations. A lot of reminiscing about their college days, gossip about their friends—after some quality time with baby Hershel Rosita apparently has not just baby fever but baby malaria according to Tara, she and Sasha are talking about starting a family.

Rosita wants to be a mom?” Aaron says, “I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.”

“Such is the power of my nephew, aka the cutest human being in existence,” Jesus says.

“I keep trying to convince Jesus to offer up his sperm,” Tara says, “Think of how cute the kid would be with Rosita’s and Jesus’ DNA. Or Sasha’s and Jesus’, I don’t know if they’ve decided.”

“And I keep telling Tara if she wants to continue being my friend she has to stop mentioning it.”

The baby would be so cute, Jesus!”

Aaron tells them a little about the book as they pass a rocky outcropping while snaking through the valley, even though Jesus covers his ears and says, “La-lalalala…no fucking spoilers, Aaron!”

“Ugh, go run up ahead Jesus. Climb some rocks or something, I want to knooooow,” Tara says.

“Ok, you should have five minutes,” Paul says, grinning. He starts climbing up the rocks, arm muscles flexing. When he pulls up one leg his pants tighten over his ass and thigh and Daryl has to look away.

“So tell me all about it.”

Aaron gives her a brief rundown of the plot, and when he’s finished Tara asks, “I love it already, can I read what you have written?”

“No, sorry,” Aaron says, “Not until after I’ve sent it to Andrea and done some re-writes. Even Eric never got to read the first draft.”

“Wow, talk about disciplined, not even the guy who let you put your penis inside him got to look at the first draft?” Tara says, then immediately claps her hand over mouth, “Oh, fuck Aaron, I’m sorry…”

Aaron, to Daryl’s surprise, laughs, “Well, he did. And vice versa.”

“It’s just…”

“It’s fine, Tara,” Aaron says, then, “I don’t…it’s been hard, but I don’t want to stop talking about him, or have it always be sad. You know that comment would’ve cracked him up. Inappropriate sex jokes always did.”

“Well, so long as he would have approved,” Tara says primly. “Seriously, I…I know I can’t open my mouth sometimes without inserting my foot…”

Aaron slings an arm over her shoulders, “Don’t worry, it’s what we love about you.”

“I hope you’ve finished spoiler talk,” Paul calls, “Because I’m on my way back down.”

*************************************

Aaron leads them next to one of Daryl’s favorite spots in the valley—a place where a stream widens into a swimming hole. The water is cold and clear and Daryl’s spent many hours sitting on the rocks watching trout jump up to catch dragonflies and enjoying the restful sound of the water trickling over rocks. Sometimes it’s enough for his mind to empty out and for him to enter a state not unlike sleep.

“Oh wow,” Tara says, her normal happy chatter fading. The three friends stare at the water for a bit before she wipes sweat from her face and says, “It’s hot as balls and that water looks amazing. Let’s go for a swim!”

“Excellent idea,” Paul says, heading towards the water.

“No, bad idea,” Aaron says, fidgeting, “there might be…snakes or something.”

Daryl snorts, “Ain’t no poisonous snakes in the river. More like to run into a copperhead or rattler out in the woods. Sides, I’ll keep an eye out for ‘em. They can’t stand being ‘round me.”

“I don’t think there are poisonous snakes, or any snakes in water this cold,” Paul says, kicking off his boots.

“Well, you don’t know—“

Uh oh,” Tara says, “Aaron’s ‘Dad Friend’ protocol has been activated.” She’s kicking off her boots as well.

“I’m not the Dad Friend—“ Aaron starts to protest.

“Are you kidding me?” Tara says as she unsnaps her jeans and pushes them off, “Glenn is responsible for a tiny human being’s life and spent his entire life around Papa Rhee then Hershel. Yet you still have a greater Dad Energy.” She steps of her jeans and goes for her shirt next. To Daryl’s horror once she’s removed that she twists her arms around to unhook her bra. He looks away, if he were alive his cheeks would be burning and as is feels a little scandalized. Daryl knows there’s only gay men here both dead and alive plus she’s a lesbian, it’s just that…fuck, naked women had always made him feel uncomfortable. Looking at them made him feel like there was something wrong with him, triggered anxiety and self-loathing. There’s a splash of water and Tara screams, “FUCK! That’s cold!” Daryl looks back and is relieved to see she’s in the water up to her chin and her parts are covered.

Daryl’s relief is short-lived because when he glances at Aaron and Paul he sees the latter is tugging his shirt over his head and that’s something that Daryl can’t look away from. Paul’s body is…fuck. Just the hints he’d gotten of it so far weren’t enough to prepare him for how lean and defined his abs are, and Daryl can see those sexy-as-hell lines above his hips. Those hips lines on guys had been the bane of Daryl’s entire fucking existence when he was alive, seeing them made him feel shivery and stupid and like picking a fight. Daryl’s eyes crawl and he takes in Paul’s pink nipples and notes he has a tattoo over his heart—the words “strawberry fields forever” in fancy script. Below that his chest has a dark dusting of hair that thickens as trails down his stomach to a wilder patch above the waistband of his pants. If Daryl could snap his fingers and be alive again he thinks the first thing he would do is bury his face in that hair and just huff in Paul’s scent. Even if that alone would be enough to kill him all over again.

Daryl looks at Aaron and wonders how the guy hasn’t melted into a puddle even if he’s just Paul’s friend. Aaron doesn’t seem affected at all, not even when Paul’s pants join his shirt and boots on the rocky beach. Daryl sees that he has another tattoo on his ankle, what looks like the phases of the moon wrapped around it like a band. Paul smirks at Aaron, undoes the tie holding his hair back in its neat bun, and takes a running jump into the water. He splashes Tara and  her screams of “Fuck that’s cold!” join his.

Aaron stands on the shore watching them with a frown as they yell for him to stop being a pussy and join them. He gives in eventually, undressing more carefully than they did. And fuck, Daryl had peeked at Aaron in the shower before and sometimes he wanders around the cabin shirtless now that it’s gotten warmer but it’s nothing like seeing him standing tall in nothing but his boxers. Nice arms, lean chest and abdominal muscle, miles upon fucking miles of legs. Daryl’s eyes are dragged to Aaron’s boxers and if the way he fills them out is any indication he’s…proportional…to those long arms and legs.

Aaron walks gingerly to the water, pausing to gather Tara and Paul’s clothes into neat piles instead of just scattered on the ground then he wades into the stream. “Oh fuck,” he says, clenching his teeth in a grimace as the water moves past his ankles and up to his calves.

“Aaron! Just jump in, you know that makes it worse!” Tara calls out.

“I think I’m good,” Aaron says as he inches forward, the water up to his shapely thighs now.

“Fucks sake,” Paul says, taking in a breath and diving under the water. Daryl can see the vague flash of his pale skin beneath the surface knifing toward Aaron.

“No, no, Paul, damnit—“ Aaron cries out, eyes bulging wide. There’s a furious explosion of splashing and Daryl sees Aaron’s legs shoot straight up as he’s pulled into the water. He emerges a few seconds later, dripping wet and shivering and shouting out how fucking cold he is.

Paul surfaces to his left, tossing his long hair back grinning harder and wider than Daryl’s ever seen, eyes sparkling up at Aaron.

“Oh you,” Aaron says, shivering, “You asshole!” He lunges forward as the surface of the swimming hole turns into what Daryl imagines an ocean in a full storm looks like, only in miniature. The air is filled with shrieks and laughter from all three of them, Tara and Paul gang up on Aaron and dunk him into the water repeatedly. Aaron emerges from the water holding Tara in a bear hug, lifting her off her feet as she screams for Jesus to save her before Aaron tosses her back in, a flash of her boobs wobbling around enough to scandalize Daryl again before she’s covered in water again.

Eventually the three of them calm down after a final dunking of Aaron and float in the water before the cold is too much for them. They haul out like sea otters on a flat rock that’s just big enough for the three of them to squeeze next to each other, Tara in the middle with her head on Aaron’s shoulder. Daryl sits on a rock a little ways away, trying not to stare at the three of them. He wishes to hell that Tara would cover herself but neither of her friends seem to care. The closest is Paul staring at her boobs with an eyebrow raised before poking one in the side with his finger.

“Jesus, did you just poke my boob?”

“Yes,” he says, “I’m sorry, it’s fascinating. Like a lava lamp or something.”

All three of them snicker.

“Oh god,” Aaron says, “do you guys remember when we broke into the pool one year and went skinny dipping?”

“Uh, yeah. I’m amazed you didn’t have a Dad Friend breakdown over how irresponsible we were being. Plus Rosita still in her ‘confused about her sexuality phase’ getting friendly with me and really friendly with Sasha is kinda burned in my brain. Seriously, how did we never call those two getting together?”

Paul chuckles, “Poor Glenn. Maggie was there giving him looks and he had the most pained ‘not now boner’ face.”

“Straight men are weak,” Tara says, “Well, all men are, but particularly straight men. I didn’t see any of you three guys popping boners over each other.”

“That’s because gay guys have years of experience in high school locker rooms learning to tame inappropriate boners,” Aaron murmurs.

“News t’me,” Daryl mutters. He’s fucking dead and gets flustered looking at Paul and Aaron in their boxers. Lose the shorts then add Eric and Glenn to the mix and Daryl would probably get a boner that could bend steel. He shakes his head over kids these days.

*****************************************

Chapter Text

Tara finds what’s left of Aaron’s bag of reefer while they’re preparing dinner, he’d tucked it into a junk drawer months ago and forgotten about it. Paul Rovia might be full of bullshit but Daryl agrees that he’s right about Aaron being a massive nerd. She pulls it out and her eyes bulge. “Jesus Christ,” she says. The thing was so goddamned big to begin even with semi-regular depredations there’s still a fuckload left.

“Oh,” Aaron says, flushing, “Yeah, I brought that up here. I haven’t touched it since March, I should probably toss it in the fire pit—“

As he says that Tara clutches the bag to her chest protectively, “That is a terrible idea and you are a terrible person for suggesting it.”

“Do you want to take it back to Atlanta?” Aaron asks, “You’re welcome to it, just don’t want you to get in trouble—“

“Uh, yeah,” Tara says, “What we don’t smoke tonight, that is.”

“We’re smoking tonight?” Paul says as he ambles in, eyebrows knitted together, “Is that the same one from Christmas, or did you buy more?”

“You’ve had this since Christmas?” Tara says, “Well, we’re definitely smoking it tonight.” She opens the bag and inhales deeply, “Holy shit, Aaron. This smells like rich people weed.”

“Aaron is rich people,” Paul says, leaning in to sniff it himself, “Fucking hell.”

Aaron shifts uncomfortably, and Paul frowns at him, “Hey, if you’d seriously rather not we can save this for Atlanta.”

“No,” Aaron says, “I don’t mind. It’s just…” he gives Paul a look, “I don’t know. Feel a bit…well, you both know why I brought it up here. To not think.”

A shadow passes over Paul’s eyes, but before he can respond Tara says, “Aaron, getting baked with friends is no different than having wine with dinner. But this isn’t an after school special, you don’t have to. But if you want to don’t need to feel guilty.”

Aaron smiles, “Well, I was able to do the wine thing even after drinking my weight in whiskey the first month. And if we’re pretending we’re in school then we might as well go all the way.”

Yes,” Tara says, “I love high Aaron.”

Aaron snorts, “What about high Jesus?”

“High Jesus is indistinguishable from regular Jesus,” Tara says, “Only slightly less full of that hippie shit.”

“Bitch,” Paul says affectionately. “Should we smoke first or eat first?”

“Let’s eat dinner like good boys and girls. Less room in our stomachs for munchies.”

******************************************

A few hours later Aaron and Tara are lying stretched out on the floor, angled so their feet are pointing in opposite directions but their heads are pressed together. She has one hand curled around his face and his petting his beard in a distracted way, whispering, “So fluffy.” Paul is on the love seat across from Aaron, head on one arm and legs propped on the other. They’re passing a joint around—not their first of the evening—and having one of those stupid, giggly conversations that stoned people have.

“Ok,” Tara murmurs, exhaling a cloud of smoke and passing the joint to Aaron, “If you had to pick a chick.”

“Michonne Grimes,” Aaron says without hesitation before hitting the joint and passing it Paul’s way.

“Ooh, good choice,” Tara says.

“And a suspiciously quick one,” Paul says, “Your literary crush on her is showing.” He takes several deep puffs, holds the smoke in his lungs, and does an impressive Irish waterfall—inhaling the smoke through his nose at the same time it curls out his mouth. He hands it to Aaron who dutifully passes it to Tara. It’s down to a roach now and she delicately crushes the tip in their makeshift ashtray.

“Why suspicious? I’m vocal about my crush. I’ve thought about it. Extensively. I’m unashamed.”

“Her husband is a lucky guy,” Tara says.

“Ooh,” Paul purrs, “Officer Rick. Now that’s something I’ve thought about. Extensively.”

“Ok, full honesty,” Aaron says, “Some of my extensive thoughts involved Officer Rick being there.”

“Homos. Anyway, your turn Jesus. If you had to pick a chick.”

“I’ll steal Aaron’s answer. Just in terms of respect.”

“Lazy,” Tara says.

“You go now, Tara,” Aaron says, “If you had to pick a dude.”

“Jesus, I guess.”

“Talk about lazy,” Aaron says, “Jesus is everyone’s ‘if you had to pick a dude’.”

“I’m right here,” Paul says.

Daryl snorts, “Serves you right.”

“Fuck off, ghost,” Paul says.

Daryl’s non-existent heart jerks. There have been so many times that he’s convinced Paul can hear him, not just sense his emotions and get a chill, but hear his actual words.

Fuck off, ghost.

“Can…” Daryl says, hope rising, “Paul, can you hear me?”

Tara gasps, “Is Daryl here? Where is he?”

“Yes, he’s in the corner over there,” Paul says, pointing to the side of the room opposite of where Daryl actually is, “Glaring at us and trying to pretend we’re not hilarious.”

Daryl’s heart sinks slowly downward. He’s actually been giggling and laughing along, he doesn’t know if it’s the power of suggestion but goddamn if he doesn’t feel high himself. He feels loose and floaty.

“Is he really?” Aaron says, his own voice hopeful as he twists his neck to examine the corner.

“Ha, made you look,” Paul says, “He’s probably floating around downstairs being an antisocial ghost. He doesn’t like me.”

“Maybe because you’re a dick,” Tara says, “Be nice to him. Daryl, if we’re too loud let us know. Is there any music you’d like us to play? Aaron…he died in the 70s, we should play him some Skynyrd.”

“Just so you know yer my favorite of Aaron’s friends,” Daryl says, grinning a little.

“I’m not listening to Skynyrd high,” Paul says, “That’s for when you’re drunk on skank beer at a tailgate party. Put on some 90s trip hop or something.”

“Yer my least favorite,” Daryl informs him.

“Oooh, good idea,” Tara says, “I think I’ve got Portishead, Daryl…we’ll play you some Skynyrd tomorrow, ok?”

Aaron’s gone a little quiet, “I know the whole ghost thing sounds stupid, but it has been helping me.”

“I’m not making fun of you!” Tara says quickly, “Or Daryl. I believe in ghosts, or at least that they’re possible. If there’s a tiny chance he’s here we should be nice to him. We don’t want him to feel left out, and what does it hurt if he’s not?”

“Seriously,” Daryl says, “My favorite. Listen to your…Portal head? What the fuck ever, I don’t mind.” The ‘college radio’ playlist has been on constantly, and it’s hit or miss for him. Some he likes, some he can’t make heads or tails of, some he despises. Whatever, it’s almost all new and different. Aaron hasn’t listened to much music since he’s been up here, and most of it has been old-timey folk shit to get him in the mood to write.

When Tara starts the music Daryl decides it falls under the “like” category. It’s slow and eerie and a little sexy, not something he’d listen to normally but is just the thing for when you’re high out of your mind.

Daryl blinks and stares around him, wondering where the fuck that came from. Because he’s not high, the dead don’t get fucking high. If they did he would’ve figured it out by now with how much Aaron smoked during his first few weeks. And when he thinks about it he realizes he’s not high, he’s clear-headed and that floaty giggly feeling isn’t there.

Power of suggestion. Projection. Paul Rovia brand bullshit. All of the above.

“God, I love this bit,” Tara says, “'Cause all I have left is my memories of yesterdayoh, these sour times…” she closes her eyes and says, “I think I first heard this album when Aisha and I did mushrooms after Midtown one year. I just laid in the grass and cried because I was so happy.”

“Oh my god,” Paul says, “I haven’t tripped in years. Fuck Tara, we should have brought some shrooms up here. Can you imagine seeing Aaron trip?”

Aaron shifts uncomfortably, “I think marijuana is as far as I want to go with my illicit drug use.”

“Oh, ‘shrooms are alright,” Paul says, “I’m a firm believer of the benefits of psilocybin. They’re sacred, though. Not just for getting trashed. Which is why they’d be good to do up here in nature. Send you on a vision quest, maybe talk to your ghost.”

“My mind is just stuck on the idea of seeing Aaron trip,” Tara says, “It’s…it’s a beautiful image. We need…fuck Jesus, remember when we passed by that farm on the way up? So…so many cows, there’s gotta be some…Can’t be more than half hour away. We should…we should…”

“This sounds like the plot to a fantasy book. Tara and Jesus go on a quest to find the sacred plants that only grow on cow turds. The final chapter we must battle the bull that guards them to prove ourselves worthy.”

“No, no,” Tara says, “A beast like that, guarding such a treasure…it would ask you a riddle.”

That comment hits Aaron’s funny bone and he collapses into giggles, “Seriously. I think I’ll stick with bougie stuff like wine and the occasional joint.”

“Well, there’s other ways to contact ghosts,” Tara says, “Maybe we can get a ouija board.”

“Maybe Aaron can set up a pottery wheel and play some Righteous Brothers shirtless while he creates phallic pottery. That’d lure sexy ghost Daryl out.”

“I swear to god I’m gonna figure out some way to kick your ass,” Daryl grumbles.

Whoah my loooove,” Paul sings, “My darling…I’ve hungered for…your touch…a long, lonely time…”

“Tara’s right about being nice to him,” Aaron interrupts, “Quit messing with him, he’s shy.”

“Am not.”

And time goes by…so slowly…ok fine, I’ll quit jerking his ghostly chains. But if he wants to pay my dreams a visit I’ll be happy to jerk other things.”

“You need to get laid, Jesus,” Tara says, “Related—you should sing more. I’ve gotten a billion comments on the WIWG vid where you sang ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Lot of thirsty gays asking if you were single.”

“Eh, I hate singing on stage in front of a crowd. For the record I define ‘crowd’ as three or more living people.”

“What about the Pride concert in…fuck, ’04? Yeah, that’s it…we’d just graduated. Well, not you, but the rest of us. I think that’s the first time I heard you really sing. You were so good! That was a crowd, a big one.”

“Well, I did a salt-shaker’s worth of cocaine first.”

“You were on coke during the Pride concert?” Tara says with a gasp.

“Tara, for simplicity’s sake let’s just assume any time you saw me during the second half of you guys’ senior year and I wasn’t at the library I just got done snorting a line of coke or crushed up adderall. I was a complete fucking mess, at the height of my Melodramatic Gay phase. Pride that year was my last hurrah.”

“Why not at the library?”

“Because it’s a sacred space and librarians are to be respected and feared.”

“Well, regardless you killed it. I think your version of ‘Losing My Religion’ made every gay within a five mile radius—except for Aaron and Eric—cry, then fall at your feet. Didn’t you walk out of that bar with like, twenty guys’ numbers?”

“I don’t remember,” Paul said, “It was an awful lot of coke, Tara. I do remember Aaron’s classic Dad Friend ‘I’m not mad, just disappointed’ face. I think he learned that one from Hershel.”

“Well, someone needed to give it to you,” Aaron says. He’s gone very quiet over the course of this conversation, jaw clenched.

“And apparently twenty guys did,” Paul snickers.

Aaron doesn’t, “No…I mean…Dad Friend face…I…I don’t…maybe we shouldn’t have smoked the marijuana, just drink…I don’t…you don’t do that anymore, and I don’t want—“

“Aaron is stuck in Dad Friend mode, might have to send him to the factory to be reset,” Paul says.

“I just,” Aaron says, “I never liked seeing you like that.”

“Don’t worry, Dad,” Paul says, “I haven’t touched that stuff in years. That was the last time, actually. Haven’t even had the urge. Even on the handful of nights like tonight where I’m smoking The Marijuana.” He pauses for a beat, “Tara’s right, though. Seeing you tripping balls would be an amazing experience. It has to happen.”

“Yer an asshole,” Daryl murmurs, “but you’re right, That would be hilarious.” He was no stranger to drugs himself during life, the Savage Sons moved everything you could think of. Never much liked amphetamines or coke, but agreed that smoking a little grass or even eating mushrooms from time to time was alright.

“Course I’m right,” Paul says dreamily.

Daryl feels another jolt of hope and disbelief, “Fucker can you hear me?”

Paul doesn’t twitch, just stares off into space with squinty, bloodshot eyes. “Does anyone want a snack?”

“No,” Tara says, “All I want to do is lay here and pet Aaron’s beard for the next sixty years. Jesus, you need to get in on this, it’s amazing.”

“I have my own beard to pet,” Paul says, stroking the whiskers on his chin.

“Paul,” Daryl says, “Asshole. Can you hear me?”

“Yeah, Jesus’s beard is pretty soft, but not as fluffy,” Tara says.

“And obnoxiously straight,” Aaron says.

“I can’t believe you used the word ‘straight’ to describe any part of me. I’m offended.”

Motherfucker, fucking answer me!”

Paul pinches the bridge of his nose, “Oof. Dad, you really don’t need to worry about marijuana being a gateway drug. I can feel the makings of a killer headache coming. I think I’m going to go outside and get some air.”

“Shit head,” Daryl snarls, lunging toward him. His months with Aaron have been happy ones, this is the first time since Christmas he’s been angry enough to try and fuck with someone’s emotion. He packs down every single terrible memory he’s ever had including the night of his murder, grabs Paul’s shoulder, and lobs it at him as hard as he can.

The effect is not what he was expecting. Paul doesn’t flinch, but Daryl gasps and is hit with a wave of—

A strangely familiar little boy walking up to three coffins, first closed, second holding a woman, third holding a little boy that is an exact mirror of the one who places a shaking hand in his coffin…

…The same little boy running frantically through the halls of a gray, institutional building, a pack of older boys hot at his heels with ugly smiles and he’s gasping under his breath, “John! John! Where are you?”

…No longer a little boy but a teenager just starting to reveal the handsome man he’ll become, sitting on the floor next to a vent where voices can be heard drifting out, a teenage girl screaming “This ain’t fair, you can’t send him away, it was my fault!” and a man’s voice roaring “Maggie this is not up for discussion!”…

…Aaron’s face, ugly and distorted from the reality had been spitting out the words, “I’m one of only half a dozen men in Atlanta that you haven’t fucked…”

“Jesus Christ,” Daryl rasps out. He’s flat on his back a few feet way from Aaron. If he had to breathe he’d be gasping for air, as is his mind just feels like it’s made of nothing but static. He watches as Paul lifts himself out of the love seat and ambles toward the door leading outside to the porch. Aaron watches him too, a frown on his face.

“Tara,” he says, “I’ll bring my beard back in a minute, ok?”

“Ok,” she says. Her eyes are closed and she looks like she’s passed out or close to it.

Aaron gets to his feet, a little unsteady, grabs one of the blankets from the back of the couch and tosses it over her before heading toward the porch after Paul.

Daryl stares at his back, some chickenshit part of him wanting to just lay here on the floor in a collapsed heap. Instead he forces himself to drift after Aaron.

*************************************

“Hey,” Aaron says, “are you ok?”

Paul is sitting in one of the rockers massaging his temples, “Yeah. Sorry, I just needed some air. One of the reasons I don’t smoke much anymore, I get headaches sometimes if I have too much.”

“Ok,” Aaron says, “at the risk of being called the Dad Friend, do you need anything? Ibuprofen, or…”

“Nah,” Paul says, “It’s already getting better.”

“Listen,” Daryl croaks, “if you can hear me please just…just answer me, I’m begging you. Please…won’t try none of that shit I did in there never again.” Those memories flash back at him, particularly the one of a lonely little boy crying out for his big brother. Because memories are obviously what they were; Daryl had tried throwing his own and got more than a few splashing back at him. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly, “I guess it was my turn to be a dick.”

Not a flicker out of Paul, his eyes are on Aaron lowering himself into the rocker on Paul’s left. Daryl drifts over to the chair farthest away from Paul, he has zero interest in accidentally brushing against him.

The three men—two living, one dead, sit in silence. Finally Aaron breaks it by whispering, “Sorry.”

“For what?” Paul says, quirking an eyebrow.

“For…well, in there when I was talking about wishing we hadn’t smoked, I thought of Christmas…”

“I swear to god Aaron,” Paul says with a little laugh, “If you apologize to me for Christmas one more time I’m punting you over the side of this porch. I was over it the following day.”

“You fucking liar,” Daryl rasps out. Oh, he’s good, incredibly good, Daryl wouldn’t have known just how bothered Paul still was if he hadn’t just been riddled with the other man’s memories.

“I just…” Aaron says, “you’ve been a good friend through all this. Don’t want to be a…dickus maximus.”

Paul snickers, “Don’t worry, Aaron. We’re pals still.”

“‘Pals’?” Aaron says.

“Friends. Amigos. Compadres.”

“I’m stuck on ‘pals’ for some reason,” Aaron says, lips quirking.

“Your pal, Paul…Pal Rovia!”

“Oh god, you are fucking stoned.”

“So are you, Aaron Paleigh.”

“You’re the one going over the porch railing.”

“You wouldn’t do that to your best pal.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” Aaron says. He fidgets for a minute before he says, “Also…in there, you mentioned that our senior year you were a mess. More so than usual.”

“Messiest and biggest of a disaster gay as I ever was.”

“You were born in ’82, right? Or ’81? Same age as us.”

“Yeah, just too lazy to start college on time. Why?”

“I was just doing the math, is all,” Aaron says, “You uh…you told me that number eleven was as bad as number one for you. That would’ve been our senior year, right? Was that part of it?”

Paul is very quiet, and to Daryl he looks dismayed and a little startled about being found out, “A little, yeah, but it was only part of it. Mostly just being a gay disaster, though. More so than usual.”

“Got a feeling yer lyin’ bout that one too,” Daryl says, “You are full of bullshit.”

Aaron just stares at him, eyes soft and thoughtful, “I just…I wish I’d known, is all.”

“Are you kidding? You would’ve ascended to some Dad Friend height never before imagined by anyone.”

“I hate when you do that,” Aaron says.

“What, call you Dad Friend? If the shoe fits—“

“No,” Aaron says, “just…I don’t know. Hide behind a wall. Try and play stuff off, like you don’t matter.”

“Oh,” Paul says, “I…I’m sorry? I’m not trying to.” He looks vulnerable for a fraction of a second, and has to gaze out into the dark away from Aaron’s face. “I just…well, I know I can be a bummer if I’m not careful. People just get so hushed and awkward, like tragedy is contagious. You probably understand.”

“I do,” Aaron says, “Look, you don’t have to worry about being ‘bummer’ or whatever. Not to me, ok? That’s what pals are for.”

Paul grins, “Thanks, pal.”

Aaron grins back, “No problem, pal.”

After several minutes of silence Paul says, “I think I’m going to go downstairs to sleep. Night, pal.”

“Goodnight,” Aaron says, “See about rousing Tara while you’re at it.”

“Will do. Fingers crossed for sexy dream ghost Daryl.”

“Yeah,” Daryl whispers, “I think even if I knew how to do that I’d steer clear of you for a bit.” Paul gives no indication that he heard him, and Daryl wonders just what the hell is going on in that guy’s head.

If Aaron’s face is anything to go by he’s wondering the same thing.

Chapter Text

The following morning Daryl drifts downstairs into Paul’s room and finds him stretched out in bed reading Mercy for the Lost by Aaron Raleigh. It’s one of the dozen or so copies of it resting on the downstairs shelves. The picture of Aaron on the back is in black and white and makes him seem far more intense and brooding than he really is.

Daryl watches him for a minute before he quietly says, “Please. If you can hear me…please say something.”

Paul turns the page the book. His eyes are darting rapidly back and forth as he reads. Daryl drifts over to him, leaning over close enough to read while maintaining a careful distance.

“Please,” Daryl whispers, “I…I haven’t talked to anybody in thirty years, except for that dream with Aaron. He doesn’t believe it really happened…please.”

Paul doesn’t react, and Daryl’s heart sinks. In the daylight watching the other man without that weird suggestive high thing Daryl can’t help but think that even if he is a bit of a shit Paul Rovia isn’t the sort of man who would ignore someone literally begging. Nothing about being a ghost makes sense, and he supposes Paul’s occasional flashes where it seems like he can hear him speak is just one more thing.

“Ok,” he says, then, “I…it’d be nice to talk to you, is all. Even if you can be an asshole.”

More silence, and after a while Daryl drifts upstairs to see if Aaron is awake yet.

******************************************

Aaron takes Tara and Paul down into Blue Ridge for the the afternoon, promising to buy them dinner at a place called The Black Sheep, which he says is the best restaurant outside of Atlanta. Before they leave Tara sets up her iPod and says, “Daryl, I’m sorry but I don’t have a lot of Skynyrd. I added some other things I thought you’d like—some Allman Brothers, Creedence, plus newer stuff like Kings of Leon and Drive-By Truckers.”

“Thank you,” he says sincerely as she hits play and a familiar guitar riff starts.

“Thirty days, lord and thirty nights

I'm coming home on an airplane flight

Mama waiting at the ticket line

Tell me son why do you stand there cryin’…”

Tara did a good job with “Ghost Daryl’s Southern Rock Playlist” as the little iPod informs him is the title. There’s plenty of music he’d listened to in life and the newer stuff is pretty good too, suits him more than most of the College Radio” playlist at least. Daryl drifts through the empty cabin humming along to the music and remembers shit like—to quote Paul Rovia—getting drunk on skank beer at tailgate parties. He also remembers Fourth of July cookouts, the taste of a charred burger, coleslaw, and collard greens washed down with sweet tea or lemonade. He remembers shit he hasn’t thought of in decades, like the way a kernel of corn burst in his mouth when he bit into it, the taste and fuzzy texture of a fresh peach, cracking his teeth down on the shell of a boiled peanut to get at the nut before spitting it out.

The playlist ends before the three friends return, and Daryl drifts outside down to his grave where he sits remembering the details of being alive.

********************************************

That night the three friends smoke another joint, push the furniture out of the way, roll up the carpet, and have a dance party. Daryl drifts around the corners of the room trying to remind himself that he is not actually high, despite how loose and dreamy he feels when he’s not paying attention.

“Special dance party College Radio playlist,” Tara informs the two men, “Lots of Outkast, JT, her Majesty Queen Bey…”

“Ugh, can you believe pretentious college Tara and Jesus didn’t like Beyonce?” Paul says as the music starts playing. He grabs Tara to pull her in for a dance, wrapping his arms around her affectionately.

Aaron laughs at them both, “You two tried so hard to stay cool but it was over for you both at homecoming. Your secret was out, there’s even video of you both dancing and singing and you definitely knew all the words.”

“Well, by then Eric and Sasha had taken the time to teach pretentious college Tara and Jesus the error of their ways,” Tara says as she grinds against Paul in a way that’s more than a little suggestive but just makes him laugh.

She mentions Eric’s name so casually and without realizing it Daryl almost forgets who she’s talking about. Aaron doesn’t, he pauses dancing for a split second to stare at her, eyes bright before he smiles and starts dancing again. Daryl remembers what he said yesterday, how he didn’t want to stop talking about Eric and how he didn’t want it to always be sad. 

The three of them dance through a few songs before Tara decides they need to have a competition. Paul wins, because he can actually dance without looking completely fucking goofy while doing it. He’s flexible and moves his hips in a way that’s completely fucking indecent and still manages to seem masculine. At one point he does this thing where he throws himself down into handstand and kicks his legs out. It makes his shirt ride up and Daryl gets another glimpse of his torso. Just a flash, unlike the extended view he got at the swimming hole but for whatever reason it’s even sexier for its brevity. Daryl stares at him and feels fucking hypnotized, even if the music choice—a guy singing that sounds more like a woman—is annoying.

Tara tries when it’s her turn, but she’s too high and giggly. At one point she gets down on all fours and starts jiggling her ass. She manages for all of five seconds before collapsing in a heap giggling. “Fuck, I forfeit, I played myself, even sober I should’ve known better than to challenge two gay guys to a dance off.”

“That’s a stereotype,” Aaron says, “We’re not all good at dancing and interior design.”

“As Aaron is about to prove,” Paul says, laughing. He switches the music and says, “Your turn, pal.”

Despite Paul’s crack about his dancing skills Aaron makes a decent effort—he seems to have some of the coordination down right at least. He still looks goofy as fuck with how long his arms and legs are, plus he doesn’t help matters by keeping his face completely deadpan while he also he sings along.

Don’t you think I’m so sexy, I’m just so fresh, so clean…”

Everyone in the room living and dead crack up at him. Daryl hasn’t seen Aaron this goofy and happy for a year and a half, ever since he dipped Eric down for a kiss in this very cabin. Watching him makes Daryl feel like he can conquer the world, like he’s still alive with a heart still beating. As goofy as he is he’s Aaron and Daryl loves him with everything he has, loves him so much he feels like he’ll just explode from it, loves him so much he can’t even be sad that they can never be together and he’s stuck as an observer. It’s enough.

As soon as this thought comes to Daryl he feels a pull, something so hard and painful but good, and he turns to where Paul is staring at Aaron and grinning. Paul Rovia has one of the best smiles Daryl’s ever seen, it’s crooked and it makes the corner of his eyes crinkle and shows that he has teeth that are close to perfect except for a gap in between one of his canines and his front teeth.

The music ends and Aaron flings himself down on the couch saying he’s too old and high for dance parties.

“I think you did a good job,” Paul says, smiling that smile again.

“Thanks, pal,” Aaron replies.

*********************************************

Daryl doesn’t sleep, so when Aaron does he likes to stretch out beside him for a few hours. Daryl will lay on his back with his fingers laced together listening to the living person next to him breathe. It’s not sleep and it’s not switching off but all the same it’s restful. Soothing.

Most nights. Tonight Daryl feels restless despite that dreamy suggestive high thing. Like he’s got an itch but nowhere to scratch, like he still has skin and it’s too hot and sensitive to touch. He wonders if the fact that Aaron is awake tossing and turning has anything to do with this feeling and dismisses the idea. It’s hardly the first time that Aaron’s had trouble sleeping.

“Fuck,” Daryl says as that maddening feeling flares. Tension flows through him, he feels a phantom memory of what it was like for his muscles to tighten what the fuck is happening—

“Aaron?” Tara’s hisses from the bottom of the stairs, “Aaron, are you awake?”

Aaron and Daryl both jump a little, and the former calls down, “Yeah. What’s wrong?”

“Are you decent?”

Fuck, that feeling keeps building. It’s like a fish hook in his guts tugging him downward. Memories flash rapidly—Aaron tonight doing his goofy dance that is still fucking sexy for some goddamned reason, Aaron yesterday at the swimming hole with his long legs and muscular thighs bare, the outline of his dick in his boxers.

“Uh, relatively speaking,” Aaron calls down to Tara, obviously unaware of Daryl losing it right beside him, “Nothing you haven’t seen before.”

Daryl sees how Aaron looked with his boxers soaking wet and clinging to his skin. A vivid image that is definitely not a memory comes—sliding down Aaron’s front and mouthing his dick through the wet fabric.

Somewhere far away Tara is saying, “That’s not comforting at all, with some of the things I’ve seen. There’s uh, a spider in my room. I need you to get rid of it, since it’s your fault.”

“Why didn’t you ask Jesus?” Aaron says.

Almost as soon as he says the name is when Daryl suddenly feels that tension vanish. Relief washes through him, he doesn’t think he could take another second of feeling that way.

“I tried to ask Jesus,” Tara says. Daryl notes for the first time she’s come all the way up into the loft, “I made the mistake of going into his room without knocking. I saw things, Aaron. Things I want to start repressing ASAP so could you please get rid of this spider or let me sleep up here?”

Aaron rolls out of bed, curls rumpled, “I don’t understand—“

Tara lets out a frustrated noise, “I walked in on Jesus beating it like it owes him money and while he could be finished by now I do not want to find out.”

Aaron looks as flustered as Daryl feels when they realize what she’s saying, “Oh. He didn’t…what did he say?”

“He was too occupied to notice me and Aaron I seriously need you to stop asking me questions because I need to start repressing. Men are so gross, thank god I’m a lesbian.”

It’s dark but Daryl can still see how red Aaron’s face is, “Oh. Ok. I’ll be right down.”

It takes Daryl a few seconds before he’s able to follow the two of them down into the cabin’s lower level. When Aaron moves past the door that leads to Paul’s room he hesitates and turns an even darker shade of red before hurrying on to Tara’s.

“Ok, I can’t blame you for getting me out of bed,” Aaron says as he uses a tissue to scoop the spider off of the wall. The thing looks big enough to make off with Tara in her sleep. He does a quick sweep of her room before declaring it safe.

“God, this is the absolute worst come down from a high ever,” Tara says as she crawls into bed and pulls the covers over her head, “Gonna have so many nightmares.”

“I’m sorry. Think happy thoughts, like Gillian Anderson in a bikini getting sunscreen rubbed on her back by Lucy Liu.”

“Aaron, you would have made a terrific lesbian.”

**********************************************

Tara and Paul leave the following afternoon. Aaron walks them out to their car, where there are a lot of hugs between the three of them and promises to do this again soon.

“When are you going to be in the ATL next, Aaron?” Tara asks, “Your face is missed.”

Aaron shrugs, “I don’t know. Probably not for longer than a day trip until this fall, I should be done with the second draft by then.”

“Can I read the second draft?” Tara asks, batting her eyes at him.

He smiles, “You can, yeah. Just don’t get too attached to it, my publisher will probably want more rewrites when I send it to them.”

“Don’t care,” Tara says, “It’s like seeing the movie then reading the book, it’s always a little different.”

“Excellent way of looking at it,” Paul says, “I won’t be reading it, though. No spoilers.”

“No spoilers,” Aaron agrees, “One of you text me when you get back home, ok?”

“Will do,” Tara says solemnly, “And you requesting that totally isn’t indicative of your status as Dad Friend.”

“Let us know if you need anything, ok?” Paul says.

“Will do,” Aaron says.

Tara reaches for the passenger door handle before jerking to a halt, “Oh fuck, I forgot to say goodbye to Daryl!”

“Goodbye, sweetheart,” Daryl grumbles, “I liked meeting you. Even if you’re joking I appreciate it.”

“I think he comes outside,” Paul says, “Aaron, didn’t you say his grave was out here somewhere? We should look for it some time.”

“No you fucking shouldn’t,” Daryl snaps, “Leave my bones be. I’m happy with where they’re at.”

“Or is that rude?” Paul asks, eyes faraway, “Maybe he likes his final resting place. If it’s around here then it must be nice.”

Daryl stares at him, “Motherfucker. I can’t figure you out.”

Aaron is rubbing the back of his neck, “I don’t want to disturb him if he’s out here. He said the construction workers did.”

“Poor Daryl,” Tara says, “At least you’re a step up from that. You should play him some music or leave the TV on for him when you’re not around.”

“That is a good fucking idea,” Daryl says.

“I don’t want to waste power,” Aaron says reluctantly, looking embarrassed. “I mean…he’s not really here.”

“Whatever, you’re rich. If there’s the tiniest chance he is here it’s worth a little extra on your power bill.”

“I agree with Tara, actually,” Paul says, grinning, “Real or not the gesture on your part is what matters. Will him into existence.”

“Jesus is a terrible influence on you, Tara,” Aaron says, smiling a little.

*********************************************

Three weeks after Tara and Paul’s visit Aaron is sitting at the kitchen table with his phone in front of him. He has it on speaker so Daryl can hear every word from his literary agent, a woman called Andrea. She’s read his first draft and has been discussing it with Aaron for the past hour, and Daryl has decided that she is his new personal nemesis. She has not had one good thing to say about the book beyond, “Clem’s great, the readers will love her. Negan’s the worst, the readers will also love him. Unfortunately.”

Everything else she nitpicks to death. Right now she’s telling Aaron, “You need to completely gut the middle section. Leave nothing but the bones. Leave nothing but the impression of the bones.”

“Hey, fuck you,” Daryl says, “Aaron, you don’t gotta listen to her, it’s great. How many books has she written?”

Aaron is listening to her, he has one of his notebooks on the table—the same one he scribbled in his quick impression of Daryl as it happens—and is writing down what she says even though she tells him she’s sending all her thoughts to him in an email. He asks her a few questions but rarely defends himself, except for the ending.

“It’s a bit anticlimactic,” Andrea says, “The readers won’t like it.”

“That’s the point. Negan is nothing, he doesn’t deserve to be taken out in a blaze of glory.”

“Yeah,” Daryl agrees.

“I understand that, but the readers might not,” Andrea argues.

“Hey, even my dumb redneck ass understood what the point was,” Daryl snaps.

“Yeah, I’m not budging on this one,” Aaron says.

“Ok, maybe if you address everything else it will work better for me. Great job, Aaron. I was worried about you for awhile. How are you holding up? Personally, I mean.”

“It’s…” Aaron sighs, “It’s gotten a lot better. Being up here has been good for me. No, it’s been amazing for me. Personally and creatively.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” she says, “Oh, in other news—filming is starting this week, they expect to wrap by Christmas and are hoping to have it ready in time to submit to Cannes.”

“Oh god,” Aaron says, “I can’t think about stuff like that. I took the money the studio gave me and ran.”

“Well, regardless you’ll want to make an appearance for the premiere. Anyway, I’ve got a good feeling about it. If this film does well I can up the asking price for the next one and will still have to beat people off with a stick.”

“We need to see if the final draft is any good, and if anyone buys the actual book,” Aaron says, lips quirking.

“I’m not worried,” Andrea says, “Get to work.”

When she hangs up Aaron stares off into space before clapping his hands together in excitement, “Wow, Daryl. She really liked it.”

“That’s her liking something?” Daryl mutters. Two hours of her nitpicking and two words of encouragement. Daryl shakes his head.

Aaron studies the notes he took over the course of the conversation, tapping them thoughtfully with a pencil. After a few minutes of that he picks up his phone again, goes to his contacts, and scrolls down to the Js.

“Hey, pal,” Paul says when he answers, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I just got done talking to Andrea,” Aaron says, “She read the first draft and loved it.”

“Awesome,” Paul says, “I knew you were nervous.”

“Yeah,” Aaron says, “I mean, there’s a lot of stuff I need to fix before I’m ready to show it to my publisher, but I’m confident.” Aaron tells Paul a bit more about the conversation, including the bit about the movie.

“It’s weird,” Aaron says, “The cast is nothing like the people I saw in my head. I’m almost afraid to watch it.”

“Let it go,” Paul says sagely, “It’s like when your kid grows up. You create it and send it into the world and if you expect it to turn out exactly how you planned then you’re bound for disappointment. Instead you need to enjoy what the world makes them.”

“That sounds suspiciously like a Hershel-ism,” Aaron says.

The two men chat for a few more minutes before Paul says, “Ok, just want to give you a four minute warning. I need to take a shower soon if I want to get out of here on time.”

“Oh!” Aaron says, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to keep you.”

Paul laughs, “It’s fine. Like I said, I have a few minutes.”

“Where are you going?” Aaron asks.

“Erm. On a date, actually,” Paul says, giving an embarrassed little laugh.

Aaron’s expression when Paul tells him that is…interesting. His smiles slips off, his brow furrows, and in a very neutral voice says, “Oh. Is it…I mean, anyone I know?”

“It’s not Alex, so don’t worry,” Paul says.

Aaron colors, “That’s not what—“

“Aaron, I know everyone hates him. As they should, he’s an asshole, and thankfully one I’ve grown out of. But no, it’s not anybody you know.”

“Oh, ok,” Aaron says, “Um. Well, who is he? What’s he like? How’d you meet?”

“So many questions, Aaron,” Paul says.

Aaron colors again, “Well, I just can’t remember the last time you went on an actual date—“ he claps his mouth shut and says, “Sorry, that came out wrong, I don’t mean…”

“Aaron,” Paul says, sounding exasperated yet fond, “I know what you meant. I’m bad at dating, we all know it. To answer: His name’s Javier, former baseball player—actually could have gone pro, but he blew out his shoulder—current athletic trainer at the school. We met when came in the store and got into an argument with one of my students about his employee discount, which meant he got into an argument with me, you know how I feel when people fuck with my kids. Anyway he stormed out, then came back to apologize to both of us and ask me if he could buy me coffee to make it up to me.”

Aaron is quiet, brow furrowing, “That doesn’t sound like a very auspicious beginning.”

“I know, I wouldn’t have said yes to coffee if he weren’t extremely contrite. And extremely hot, I’m not a saint. He’s going through a rough patch, his dad was just diagnosed with lung cancer and his whole family is in Miami. It’s hard for him to be out of state, you know? He even brought my student coffee to apologize to her, she’s completely over it and more than a little smitten.”

Aaron’s fingers drum against the table in an agitated tattoo, “Well, I guess as far as reasons go for being a jerk that’s a pretty good one. I understand why you gave him a second date.”

“This will be date number three, actually,” Paul informs Aaron, “If you count our coffee date, we had dinner last week.”

“Oh,” Aaron says, “what’s on the agenda for date number three?”

“Braves game, then fingers crossed for a good old-fashioned make out session. I told him he owes me that if he’s going to make me watch the most boring organized sport in existence.”

“I forgot you hate baseball,” Aaron says, “I’m surprised you didn’t insist on more than making out.” Aaron winces, “Sorry, I don’t mean to imply—“

Aaron,” Paul says in that fond, exasperated voice, “You are allowed to make jokes about my slutty ways, I do it too. Three dates with no sex is probably a record for me. But we’re taking it slow, I’m actually the first guy he’s dated. So I'm just as nervous as he is. Big responsibility, you know?”

“First guy?” Aaron says, frowning hard, “How old is he?”

“Twenty-eight,” Paul says, “An infant. Seriously, it just took him a long time to realize he’s bi. Can’t imagine why, you’d think someone from a conservative catholic family who’s spent his entire adult life in organized sports would be less repressed in terms of sexuality.”

Aaron’s fingers curl into a fist on the table, “Well, just so long as he’s not using you—“

“Aaron, that sounded suspiciously biphobic. Do I need to have Rosita up there to give you an ass-beating?” he still sounds playful but there’s a note of warning in his voice, one that Aaron does not heed.

“That’s not what I meant at all,” Aaron says, “It’s just…y’know, some big time athlete. You know how things are at the school, anyone involved with the baseball or football team even tangentially is treated like royalty.”

“I’d hardly call him a ‘big time athlete’,” Paul says, a flash of irritation in his voice, “He’s the athletics trainer, not the coach or anything like that. Even if he were higher up he’s not like that, doesn’t have an ego. He’s a nice guy, I like him.”

Aaron takes in a breath and unclenches his fist, “Ok. I’m sorry, pal. If he’s a nice guy then I hope this works out. Just. I mean, just be careful.”

“Look,” Paul says in a tight voice, “I know my taste in men hasn’t always been the best, but…I mean, it’d be nice if your automatic assumption wasn’t that any guy willing to date me must be a complete asshole.”

“Man,” Daryl says to Aaron, “You really need to shut the fuck up.” He narrows his eyes at Aaron suspiciously, “Wait, are you fucking jealous?”

“No!” Aaron says to Paul quickly, “Look, I know I should just shut up before I put my foot in it even more. I just…” he takes in a deep breath, “Ok, you don’t have the best track record with guys. That’s not me thinking only assholes are willing to date you, that’s me being the Dad Friend and knowing…I mean, sometimes you act like you don’t deserve better than assholes.”

“Well, arguing with my student notwithstanding,” Paul says, “He’s not an asshole.”

Aaron hangs up a few minutes later with Paul still in a frosty mood. He sits at the kitchen table scowling and drumming his fingers against the wood. Then he goes to his desk, opens up his computer, taps in “Georgia University Atlanta” and “athletics trainer” and finally “Javier”.

“You’re jealous,” Daryl says. Any doubt he has vanishes when he sees the bitchy look on Aaron’s face when he pulls up an employee profile of a Javier Garcia. “Wow,” Daryl says. The guy is…well, the guy is pretty fucking hot. Light brown skin, wavy black hair that tumbles over his forehead, dimples, cheekbones, the works. The picture is of him from the shoulders up but Daryl can still see a hint of his athletic body.

Aaron’s fingers tap against the keyboard and he frowns harder. He lets out a breath, “Ok, so maybe I’m being a dickus maximus. But Jesus has such terrible taste in men. Let me tell you a bit about Fucking Alex.”

A few minutes later Daryl is on Aaron’s side completely when it comes to Paul’s taste in men, and he narrows his eyes suspiciously at the picture of Javier Garcia. Aaron is still talking, “It’s like I was telling you when we talked. Jesus…sometimes he just acts like he doesn’t matter, and that he doesn’t deserve better than what he gives himself.”

“Man,” Daryl whispers, “You are jealous. I thought you two was just friends.”

What astonishes Daryl is that he isn’t jealous himself. He knows he loves Aaron and would give absolutely anything to be alive and talk to him. Daryl has a hard time believing Aaron would ever see him that way even if such an impossible scenario were to happen. He knows that Aaron still loves Eric and Daryl has never been jealous of that relationship. Not even before Eric was just as dead as Daryl himself is. Daryl never got a chance to know Eric although sometimes he feels like he does since Aaron talks about him so much. From what Daryl’s learned Eric was a man he couldn’t be jealous of because lord knows he could make Aaron happier than Will Dixon’s youngest ever could. Daryl knows Paul Rovia both better and worse than he knows Eric. Better because he’s spent more time in his presence—only few days, but more than the few hours he knew Eric—worse because he can’t figure the guy out. He’s a bit of an asshole with his “sexy dream ghost Daryl” talk and he’s also full of fucking bullshit, but…

But Daryl remembers Paul coming up here to check on Aaron, the careful way he was with him. The conversation he had with Maggie, saying that Aaron might need time up here alone. He understood what Aaron needed, had gone to the effort to take care of him. He’d told Aaron the story of his brother, and as full of bullshit as that story was Daryl knew even that much had cost the guy.

He studies Aaron’s profile as he closes the school’s page and switches to Facebook where he types “Javier Garcia” into the search. It’s a common name, but Facebook helpfully informs Aaron that he and a particular Javier Garcia have a friend in common, a Paul “Jesus” Rovia. Aaron’s face just gets bitchier and bitchier as he scrolls through Javi’s public posts, nearly ever single picture has “liked by Paul ‘Jesus’ Rovia” on it. Aaron switches to Paul’s page then, and predictably his most recent crop of photos all have “liked by Javier Garcia.” One photo of Paul licking an ice cream cone suggestively even has a comment from Javier Garcia that reads, “Whoah” and some of those little icon thingies next to it—a pair of eyes looking off to the side and three drops of water.

Aaron scowls and snaps his computer closed. He rubs his face and says, “Fuck, Daryl. I hope he’s a good guy and not an asshole. He seems a little immature from what I can see, but…fuck, what do I know? I don’t remember what dating is like. I don’t think I ever even knew, actually. I was nineteen when Eric and I got together. Before him it was all teenage fumbling and random hookups with guys too old for me.”

“You know yer askin’ the wrong guy, right?”

Aaron sighs, “I should…I’m definitely being a dick. Paul got his shit together, I should trust him.”

“Wouldn’t go that far.”

After a few minutes of brooding Aaron returns to his kitchen table and starts paging through the notes he took while talking to Andrea. He has a bullet point list of ‘major plot changes’ that he taps with a pen for a few minutes before scratching out, “change Gabriel’s last name from Garcia to Perez.”

“Now who’s immature,” Daryl mutters.

Chapter Text

Aaron works on the second draft as the dog days of summer give way to fall. He’s a machine, there’s way less fucking around than when he was working out the story. He wakes up in the morning, has breakfast, takes a hike before the heat of the day can really set in, then parks himself at his desk and writes into the early afternoon. He breaks for lunch and goes right back at it. In the evenings he sprawls out on his porch in one of the rockers and either reads or just stares out at the stars, brow furrowed. Sometimes he talks to Daryl, tells him what’s on his mind, most often plot details with the story. Daryl is annoyed he can’t answer back, he fucking hates the second draft; Aaron has cut out some of his favorite parts and added in some shit that just doesn’t seem necessary. Andrea’s status as his personal nemesis continues to solidify when he sends her a few chapters and her response is, Much better.

Mid-September Aaron starts spending his weekends in Atlanta. All of them, not just the occasional trip every few weeks. Daryl is pretty sure that the main cause of this new habit is Aaron logging into Facebook at the beginning of the month and seeing that Paul has updated his status to “in a relationship with Javier Garcia.” The status has dozens of “likes”, and as Daryl watches Aaron clicks on the “like” button even though he’s wearing his bitch face. Daryl would laugh at him if he didn’t feel the same. Daryl hasn’t met Javi and never will but the guy annoys him on general fucking principle because he’s unfairly good-looking and from what limited information Daryl has he seems nice. After “liking” Paul’s relationship status Aaron goes to Javier’s Facebook and starts poking around. Daryl notes that Javier Garcia now has six friends in common with Aaron Raleigh—in addition to Paul “Jesus” Rovia he is also friends with Maggie and Glenn Rhee, Sasha Williams, Rosita Espinosa, and Tara Chambler. Daryl feels a vague sense of betrayal over the last one. Aaron stares at a picture of Paul that Javi posted of the two of them in the bleachers at a baseball game then starts scrolling through the comments.

Javier Garcia: At a Braves game with this handsome guy.

Maggie Rhee: Wow, Jesus. You must like this guy if you’re willing to sit through a baseball game. ;)

Paul “Jesus” Rovia: He’s ok.

Javier Garcia: He likes me enough to sit through *three* games and counting.

Paul “Jesus” Rovia: You promised never to tell. I trusted you.

Javier Garcia: :D

David Garcia: Can I show Mama this picture? Hector let it slip that you’re dating someone.

Javier Garcia: :| Um. I’ll talk to you on the phone, hermano.

Aaron scrolls through Javi’s page and there’s a status update a few days later that reads:

FOR EVERYONE LIVING IN A CAVE: I’M BISEXUAL AND AM CURRENTLY DATING A (FANTASTIC) GUY. YOU KNOW WHERE THE “UNFRIEND” BUTTON IS PLUS WHERE YOU CAN SHOVE IT IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH EITHER FACT!

This message is (Daryl assumes) repeated in Spanish immediately after. Aaron scowls and keeps scrolling through Javi’s Facebook, and for the first time Daryl is tempted to cut the internet while he’s on the damn thing. He has absolutely no idea how to advise Aaron on this even if they could actually talk. Daryl does know enough to know that stalking your rival looking for things to hate isn’t helpful. He doesn’t even know if Aaron’s jealousy means he actually wants to be with Paul, or is ready to be with anyone, or if he even realizes that he’s jealous. Daryl’s pretty fucking clueless when it comes to love.

When Aaron returns to the cabin after his first weekend in Atlanta he talks to Daryl a bit about Javi and Paul, and the only thing bad thing that he can say is to repeat, “The guy seems a little immature. I’m worried he doesn’t take this seriously, but…he seems ok. I guess.” The fact that Javi seems “ok” seems to piss off Aaron more than if he was an asshole.

“Seriously man,” Daryl mutters, “I’m dead and c’n still see what this is really about.”

At any rate like always when Aaron is gone Daryl misses the hell out of him but it’s easier to deal with now. Whether it was due to Tara’s urging or some vague feeling of “willing Daryl into existence” Aaron has started leaving the TV on when he’s gone. He doesn’t just turn it to a random channel either; instead he will play different TV shows in their entirety. Aaron’s able to do this because all these TV shows live on a little doodad that he refers to as a “thumb drive” that he can plug into the side of his television set. Every time Daryl starts thinking he’s gotten used how technology is basically magic these days something happens to remind him he never will be.

The first show Daryl watches while Aaron is away is called Friday Night Lights. It’s his favorite show so far, about high school football players in rural Texas and although it takes place in modern times Daryl finds it hits home for him in a good way. Daryl doesn’t like the next two shows Aaron chooses for him, the first is about a mafia family called The Sopranos  and Daryl guesses it’s a good story but has to concentrate and cut the television off before too long. He spends the remainder of the weekend in silence. He has to do the same thing the following weekend when Aaron puts on a show called Breaking Bad that he says is one of his favorites and “just masterfully written.” Daryl just couldn’t take seeing some of this shit, the Savage Sons were a very different sort of criminal outfit than the ones portrayed in these two shows but it hits too close to home in the worst fucking way. Thankfully the next show Aaron plays is one that takes place in outer space called Battlestar Galactica which Daryl could’ve sworn was played on TV when he was alive. It’s a little weird but interesting; and while their are some fucked up moments on the whole it doesn’t stir up too much of Daryl’s shit.

Of course, Daryl finds Aaron’s smallest doings more interesting than television so is always happy when he returns. Much as Daryl isn’t a fan of the second draft the process is still interesting, particularly when Aaron goes scrolling through the Internet to research little details. Daryl’s still fascinated by the Internet, all the myriad ways people use it to talk to each other. He wishes he could use it, maybe read up on some things, but even if Daryl could figure out how to type the keyboard without busting it Aaron closes it up for the night religiously. Daryl will stare at the little silver laptop with its glowing apple logo and fantasize about smashing it against the nearest wall.

September also brings with it a day where Aaron stops midway through writing, clicks on his calendar, turns ashen, and gets up to pace. After a few minutes of that he buries his face in his hands.

“Hey man,” Daryl says, alarmed, “Y’alright?”

“I forgot Eric’s birthday,” Aaron says, voice shaking, “It’s today. How could I have forgotten his fucking birthday?”

“You didn’t forget it,” Daryl says, “Day ain’t over.”

Even if Aaron could hear Daryl’s words of advice he doubt it’d make much difference. Aaron shudders, and the tears come. Daryl thinks this is the first time he’s seen Aaron cry since Tara and Paul’s visit over the summer.

“I fucking hate that it’s gotten easier,” Aaron says in a shuddery voice after he’s cried out, “Hate that…fuck, shouldn’t the world know he’s gone? Shouldn’t his death have made everything stop?”

Daryl thinks of all the loving messages and memories Aaron’s friends shared with him on the anniversary of Eric’s death. He thinks of Glenn and Maggie calling their son “Hershel Eric”, of Eric’s mother who even if according to Aaron only met the bare minimum driving all the way to Atlanta to visit Eric’s grave. He thinks of his own life, how the only person who noticed or cared that he was gone was Merle, and his brother never came up here to visit his remains. How probably the best friend he’s ever had is standing right in front of him and they’ve only talked once and most likely never will again.

“I think,” Daryl says, voice thick, “I think he’s lucky that so many folks remember him at all. Details don’t matter.” Aaron doesn’t hear him, it’s just one more thing on a very long list that Daryl will never be able to tell him. Aaron tries to get back to work after that but it’s obviously a lost cause. Twenty minutes pass before he fishes his phone up, taps the contacts, scrolls down to the “Js” and calls Paul.

The phone rings long enough that Daryl thinks Aaron will hang up, but Paul answers before he can, “Hey, pal. Sorry, I was on the other line with Maggie, needed to wrap a few things up.”

“Hey,” Aaron replies, “It’s fine. I didn’t…you’re not busy, are you? Is Javi there?”

“No, he had to go to Miami this week,” Paul says, “So I’m by my lonesome. What’s wrong? You sound terrible.”

“I…I forgot Eric’s birthday,” Aaron says, voice small, “I feel…fuck. I don’t know how I feel,” he takes in a breath and Daryl realizes he’s about to start crying again, “Like…is this how it starts? Forgetting him? Forgetting our life together?”

Paul is quiet, “I…I don’t know. I’m sorry, pal, this is honestly outside of my area.”

Aaron gives a sad smile, “It was a rhetorical question. I know the forgetting a birthday thing hasn’t happened to you. Sorry, I just…you’re the only person I can talk to about things like this,” he gives another sad little smile, “I know you won’t think I’m just being a total bummer. I just…I’ve already forgotten so much already. Like what he smelled like. Stupid thing, something if you’d asked when he was alive I couldn’t describe to you. I don’t know if I even noticed he had a smell. But I notice its absence.”

Paul’s quiet again, “One of the reasons this isn’t my area is that my memories of them are pretty spotty in general and always have been. Like…when we were eight we went on vacation to Disney. I’ve got pictures and I have memories of telling people about the trip, but I have no memories of the trip itself. Almost that entire year is a blank, actually. I remember John much better than our parents, I couldn’t tell you what either of their birthdays are. But there’s all this little stuff I do remember. When we were six I had the flu and Mom sat by me singing me ‘Blackbird’ until I fell asleep. Dad digging in the garden and showing us worms. And…I remember the two most important things: we were happy, and I was loved. The details don’t matter.”

“That’s what I told him,” Daryl whispers.

Aaron wipes a tear from the corner of his eye with his thumb, “I…thank you for telling me that.”

“Any time,” Paul says.

*******************************************

The leaves are changing color when Aaron sends the second draft of what he’s taken to calling Vengeance for the Plunderers to his publisher. Daryl hopes that like with the first draft Aaron will invite some friends back up for a weekend in the cabin but he heads back to Atlanta instead. Before he leaves he puts a TV show called Lost that is one of the most maddening things Daryl has ever seen. He’s tempted several times over the course of Aaron’s absence to try breaking the TV set but at the same time he has to know what happens next.

Aaron is gone for two weeks, and when he gets back he’s agitated. Something is clearly eating at him, and Daryl waits for him to come out with it. He doesn’t do much writing, Daryl gathers he’s waiting to hear back from his publisher. Instead he goes on long hikes, chops wood, and spends a lot of time in town at the library. He tells Daryl about that, at least.

“I’ve got an idea about the third book,” Aaron tells him as he pages through photocopies of articles he printed out, “The one about you. Or about a character based on you.”

“Still don’t see why you’d want to write ‘bout me,” Daryl mutters to himself.

“I’m thinking of setting it before and after the Civil War,” Aaron says thoughtfully, “For several reasons. I know you died in the seventies, but I already wrote about that time period in my first book. Want to try something different. I was poking around when I happened on this article about the rise of spiritualism in the United States, how it was connected to the Civil War and so many people dying far away from home,” he smiles, “Since you’re a ghost I thought it was appropriate.” His smile fades a little and he says, “Also…well, I know you said I could write about you, but I still feel a little…maybe changing the time period will help me feel less like I’m exploiting you.”

“Man,” Daryl says, “You don’t need to worry none ‘bout that. Write about me however you want.”

“It’s weird,” Aaron says, “to already be doing the research. I couldn’t even think of the story I wanted to tell for my second book until almost a year after the first one was finished. Guess you just inspired me.”

Daryl feels like his entire soul is blushing at that comment. “Least I c’n do,” he says, “I…I’m so happy you came to live up here, least for part of the time,” then, having the courage only because  Aaron can’t hear him he says quietly, “I love you.”

**********************************************

Aaron spends the next several months working on the final rewrites of Vengeance for the Plunderers. He’s even more of a machine, Daryl has the feeling he wants it done, wants to move on. He stops going back to Atlanta every weekend so he can work more, hammering out the last version of the story. Daryl was halfway expecting to hate the third draft as much as he hated the second but to his surprise it might be his favorite version so far. By the beginning of December—nearly an entire year after he first came up—he’s all but finished.

Daryl is reading over Aaron’s shoulder as he reviews one of the middle chapters when his phone starts buzzing and playing a song that Daryl recognizes from other phone calls:

Well, it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus…make me feel good inside…got to be a chocolate Jesus…keep me satisfied…”

Aaron snatches up the phone, “Hey, pal. What’s up?”

“I’m eating my bodyweight in Chunky Monkey and listening to Back to Black on repeat,” Paul says.

Aaron frowns, “What’s wrong?”

“Javi and I are officially on a break, and I feel like shit about it. This never happens to me, do not recommend.”

Aaron’s face is a fucking kaleidoscope of emotion—there’s a flash of elation, then guilt, then dismay, then pleased, then sad, “I…What? Why? You guys…I mean, you guys seemed so into each other.” Looking like the admission is killing him Aaron adds, “I was wrong about him. He’s a good guy.”

Paul sighs, “He’s been thinking about moving back to Miami for months now. And by ‘thinking about it’ I mean he’s definitely going to but hadn’t admitted it to himself until recently.”

Aaron’s bitch face returns, “What? Did he just spring this on you? I know his family is down there but I had the impression he was in Atlanta for the long haul.”

“No, that’s the hell of it. When we first started seeing each other he told me straight up that it was a possibility. His dad’s dying and his mother isn’t coping. If it was just that he wouldn’t move, but his brother is also not coping since on top of this he was widowed last year and has three kids to raise who are definitely not coping with any of it. Those kids are everything to Javi.”

Aaron, looking again like what he’s saying is killing him, asks, “And he hasn’t…you haven’t thought of going with him, or trying the long distance thing?”

“That’s one of the reasons we’re putting a brakes on this whole thing, pal. He said if we didn’t do it now and things keep going the way they’re going he’d ask me to come with him. And if things keep going the way they’re going I’d consider it, so best to nip it in the bud.”

“I don’t understand,” Aaron says, fist clenched so tight Daryl can see his white knuckles, “That sounds like…maybe you should consider it.”

“Fuck, man,” Daryl says, “What the fuck are you doin’? You want him to move to fucking Miami?”

Daryl hasn’t seen Paul since July and has no idea when the next time will be, he just knows that if the guy moves to Miami it won’t be for a very long fucking time. Maybe never. Daryl’s surprised how upsetting this thought is; and until this moment had no idea how badly he wants to see Paul Rovia again. Thinks it’d be worth suffering through Paul’s shitty “sexy ghost” jokes and how it feels like sometimes he hears Daryl and is fucking with him.

Thankfully Paul says, “No. I’m self aware enough to know that’d be a bad idea. My life’s here. My job for a start—and I know manager of a campus bookstore isn’t glamorous but I like it. The benefits are great and it’s stable. My family is here, or the closest thing I’ve got to it. Maggie and baby Hershel and the rest of our friends. I like Javi a lot, but I don’t think I love him. Not enough to give up everything I’ve got here, at least not yet. We’ve only been dating for a little more than four months.”

Aaron clenches and unclenches his fist. Looking like he’s going to be sick he says, “I knew Eric was it for me after the first month. I would’ve moved anywhere for him.”

“Well, not all of us are lucky enough to meet the love of our lives at nineteen,” Paul snaps, then is immediately contrite, “I’m sorry, that was—“

“No,” Aaron says, taking slow, deliberate breaths, “That wasn’t…I just wanted to say…if you’re holding back because you have some arbitrary number in your head about how long you need to be dating someone, then…then it’s not too soon. I…” he swallows, “We’ve talked about this. Sometimes you act like you don’t matter, or…I want you to be happy. You deserve it.”

“Man, you heard ‘im,” Daryl mutters, “He said he don’t love this guy.” He starts picking at his fingernails, he knows he’s being a selfish shit again but fuck it. He doesn’t want Paul Rovia moving all the way to Miami with some asshole and he knows Aaron doesn’t either. Whether it’s because Aaron wants to be with Paul himself or just doesn’t want his friend to move away Daryl doesn’t know or care.

Paul is quiet for so long that Aaron says, “Pal? You still there? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—“

“I’m here,” Paul says, “Sorry, I was just…just thinking of something.”

“Care to share with the class?” Aaron asks, going for a light tone.

Paul sighs, “No, it’s not important. Any way, like I was saying…my family and friends are here. I’d resent him for taking me away eventually. It’s just…it’s just bad timing. I think if I met him a year or maybe even a month earlier things would be different.”

“I understand, I think,” Aaron says, fingers drumming against his thigh, “What did Maggie say when you told her?”

“I haven’t talked to her yet,” Paul says, and Daryl can hear a smile in his voice, “I…it’s stupid, but I realized your my only gay friend. Gay male friend, I mean. Least the only one I feel comfortable talking about things like this. I guess I just…I wanted to talk to someone I thought would understand. Thanks for listening.”

“Any time,” Aaron says.

Chapter Text

Aaron turns in the final draft to his publishers in mid-December. The last thing he types is the dedication:

For Eric. Always.

And for the ghost in our cabin. Thanks for listening.

Ain’t got much choice,” Daryl says, although to say he’s pleased would be a gross understatement. In fact he feels warm and bubbly, the spectral equivalent of a shaken soda. Aaron might not believe Daryl’s there in the top of his head and they haven’t spoken in nearly a year but he’d thanked him right alongside Eric.

After Aaron hits “send” on his email he closes the computer and leans back in his chair, rubbing his face with his hands.

“Congrats, man,” Daryl grumbles, “What now?”

Aaron doesn’t answer; or at least he doesn’t answer Daryl. Instead he pulls out his phone and dials Glenn’s number.

“Did I call at a bad time?” Aaron says when Glenn answers, sounding frazzled while the baby screams in the background.

“Never a good time to call the Rhee household now that Hershel has discovered he can climb out of baby jail and wreak havoc on the rest of the apartment,” Glenn says, “I am the meanest dad in the world tonight because I stopped him from pulling the lights off the tree and shoving them in his mouth.”

Aaron smiles, “Yeah, I’m going to report you to child services, bro. Worst dad ever.”

“I know, I keep doing ‘no fun’ things like stopping him from killing himself.”

Aaron smiles again, “He’ll be bemoaning all of this in therapy in twenty years.”

“At least,” Glenn says, “So not a good time, but there is no good time, such is parenthood,” then to what Daryl assumes is his wife he says, “It’s Aaron.”

Daryl hears a muffled conversation, then Glenn returns and the baby can no longer be heard, “Ok, I’ve moved to the balcony and we can talk for a minute. What’s up, bro?”

Aaron fidgets a little then says, “I finished my final draft and sent it to my publisher.”

“Wow, congratulations,” Glenn says, “Are you doing anything to celebrate?”

“That’s uh, kinda why I was calling you,” Aaron says, “Are you going to the farm for Christmas?”

“We are,” Glenn says, “If you’re angling for an invitation then this is it. I’ll double-check with Hershel Sr for formality’s sake but you know he’d love to have you.”

“I was angling for an invitation, yes,” Aaron says, then in a deliberately casual voice, “Sure it won’t be too many people? I mean, I assume Jesus is coming too? Unless he’s hiding from Hershel again.”

Glenn hesitates a fraction of a second, “Funny you should mention that—Maggie told him it’s baby Hershel’s first Christmas so he needs to butch up and spend the entire week with the family. You are also welcome for the entire week.”

“Oh,” Aaron says, drumming his fingers against his desk again, “I won’t impose, just Christmas Eve dinner and watching the kiddo open presents in the morning.”

“It’s not an imposition,” Glenn says, “But anyways, it’ll be great to have you. Will you be staying in Atlanta after?”

“For a bit, yeah,” Aaron says, and Daryl’s heart sinks, “I’ve got some stuff I need to do. I…I’ve been thinking of selling the condo. Getting a smaller place for when I’m in the city.”

Glenn is quiet for a moment, “I think that’s a good idea,” he says carefully, “I’m surprised you didn’t do it sooner.”

“Well,” Aaron says, “I mean…we hadn’t lived there for very long before he got sick, but…but it was the last place we lived together. Guess I didn’t want to give that up.”

“I know,” Glenn says, “But most of the memories there aren’t happy ones, man.”

“Yeah,” Aaron says, “I…being up here helped me see that. I want to remember the important stuff. Plus I want to spend some time in Atlanta doing research. Stop by the GU library, as a distinguished alumnus I can access all sorts of fun stuff.”

“Well I know Jesus is friends with some of the librarians if you want to ask for his help,” Glenn says in a deliberately casual voice.

“I’m dead and never even kissed a guy,” Daryl mutters, “But even I can see that you need ta—“ what had Maggie said? “—Need ta ‘butch up’.”

“Oh, I don’t want to bother him at work,” Aaron says.

“The library is right across from the bookstore and he gets away with murder because he’s their only competent longterm employee,” Glenn says, “But anyway, it will be nice to have Uncle Aaron back in Atlanta for longer than a weekend.”

Aaron smiles, “Well, I want to come back here before too long,” Daryl’s heart soars, “I’ve got…I really want to start writing again.”

“Wow, already?” Glenn says, sounding impressed, “You needed some time to freak out the first time around.”

“I didn’t freak out—“

“You freaked out,” Glenn says with a laugh, “Eric said that he had to peel you off the ceilings most mornings, even when things started to go well. Especially when things started to go well.”

“He was a liar,” Aaron said, “I reacted completely calm and appropriate to the situation.”

“I was there too,” Daryl says, “Remember you talkin’ bout how the second book had expectations.”

I’d argue with you more,” Glenn says, “But I’m being summoned by Mrs. Rhee, looks like it’s my turn to deal with Hershel.”

“Go wrangle your progeny,” Aaron says, “I’ll call you later to work out the details for Christmas.”

*************************************************

Aaron leaves the TV on while he’s away in Atlanta but Daryl doesn’t watch it much. Instead he spends most of the time in his woods drifting through the trees and enjoying the hush of winter over everything. It’s been a long time since he was alone, and while he misses Aaron it’s nice to reacquaint himself with the rhythms of animals that make up the valley. Aaron’s gone for almost an entire month, the longest he’s been away since he first started coming up here. Strangely enough Daryl finds the time seems to pass quicker this time. Maybe because he knows Aaron will be back— he told Daryl he was inspired and he told Glenn that he wanted to start writing. There’s not as much of that obsessive worry he just won’t show up, and when tries to make itself known all Daryl has to do is remember the dedication of Aaron’s book:

And for the ghost in our cabin. Thanks for listening.

Still Daryl is more than ready by the time Aaron comes back toward the end of January. He’s so happy to see the other man that as soon as Aaron gets out of the Jeep Daryl lays a hand on his shoulder and tries to push a bundle of emotions his way:

(Missed you love you glad you’re back can’t wait to see how you write about me)

Aaron stops in his tracks, and when Daryl looks at his face he sees that he’s staring at the cabin with the soft smile of a man coming home.

“Hey, Daryl,” he says when he walks through the door of the cabin, “Hope you were able to get some rest.”

“Nah,” Daryl says, “I haven’t been able to switch off since y’all started building this place. Haven’t missed it.”

“I had a good time in Atlanta with everyone,” Aaron continues, “But I was ready to be back here. Got some research done, I want to start.

“Well your computer’s probably in that little bag of yours,” Daryl says, “Get to work.”

Aaron does have his computer in his little bag, and he takes it out and sets it up on the desk. Daryl hovers over his shoulder but instead of writing Aaron goes immediately to Facebook. After posting a brief message informing the masses that he’s arrived safely in Blue Ridge he goes to Glenn’s page to look at his most recent pictures. Daryl can’t be annoyed at this turn of events, he leans in eagerly. Pictures of what looks like Hershel’s first birthday party, Aaron smiling at one of the baby’s mouth covered in blue frosting. There’s a lot of people in the photos Daryl doesn’t recognize, he imagines they’re more of the extended Rhee/Greene clan. Aaron clicks rapidly through those photos until he gets one with more interesting people. A picture of Sasha and Rosita posed together beaming. Sasha is hugging Rosita from behind, one palm cupped over her abdomen. Glenn’s caption reads:

Next year they’ll be joining us in the madness! Congratulations to the Moms-to-be!

Daryl grins when he sees a comment from Tara: Still sad you didn’t use Jesus’ sperm.

Below it is a response from Paul: We’re not friends any more, you know that right? Come clean out your overnight drawer at my place.

Aaron moves on to a picture of Paul with his hands raised in the air and grinning hugely, Hershel in front of him mirroring his pose. This one is captioned: Uncle Jesus retains his status as Hershel’s favorite human.

More pictures, going backwards in time. Pictures from what looks like a New Year’s Eve party, everyone dressed fancy and wearing party hats that have “Happy 2013!” written in sparkling letters. Another picture of Paul—he’s wearing a charcoal gray suit, his hair is slicked back into a tight bun, and he looks stupidly handsome. Aaron lingers on this one. His eyes are soft and thoughtful, and he moves on. Pictures of what looks like Christmas day—Maggie and Glenn and little Hershel, all three of them are wearing matching pajamas that have a pattern of little dinosaurs wearing Santa hats. A picture of Paul in pajamas of his own looking gloriously rumpled. The t-shirt he’s wearing has a cartoonish drawing of the nativity and the words, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESUS!” Aaron lingers on this picture even longer, and  after several long moments says, “I spent Christmas at the Greene farm for the first time in…years. We used to go when we were in college, before Robertha learned to be civil to me when we visited.”

Aaron smiles as he clicks on to the next picture, this one of Hershel the elder with baby Hershel in his lap, “The first year Glenn wasn’t there, he’d gone home to Michigan, and Eric had gone home to Tennessee for one last Christmas before he told his mom off. Hershel thought I was Maggie’s boyfriend, didn’t quite believe her when she said I was gay and had a boyfriend of my own.”

Another picture, this one of Paul with Hershel Sr. The former is opening a present and the latter is grinning at him. Aaron’s smile fades a little, “I talked to Jesus a lot over Christmas this year. Of East Atlanta, not of Nazareth.”

“Why don’t you just call ‘im ‘Paul’? It’s a stupid nickname, like he ain’t a real person.”

“You know,” Aaron says, still looking at the photo of Paul with Hershel, “I’ve been friends with Paul for twelve years or so and we haven’t talked much one-on-one until recently. We talked a bit about the year he spent with the Greenes when he was a kid, and he told me why Hershel kicked him out.”

“Hershel kicked him out?” Daryl says, then remembers in a flash the memories he’d been hit with when he’d laid his hands on Paul over the summer. You can’t send him away! followed by, Maggie this is not up for discussion!

I knew a little bit of that story,” Aaron murmurs, “Maggie said she and Jesus were bad influences on each other, with her being the worst. Said they’d sneak out to go to parties where they got drunk and smoked marijuana…teenager shit, you know?”

“Kinda,” Daryl says, “Ain’t really my area.” Daryl hadn’t needed to sneak out of the house he shared with Merle as a teenager and if he wanted to smoke dope he’d just ask his brother for some.

“Hershel’s a recovering alcoholic and the drinking thing made him furious. Couldn’t brush it aside,” Aaron frowns, “It’s weird. The legal drinking age in Germany was sixteen when we were stationed there, I used to go out every Friday night with my friends and just walk into a bar…” he gives himself a shake, “Paul told me the straw that broke Hershel’s back was him and Maggie getting arrested. Her boyfriend at the time cheated on her so Jesus swiped the guy’s keys and they took his car out on a joyride. Nice car, apparently. Jesus said that the original plan was to just fuck with it a little, maybe key it or spray paint it with dirty words but they started drinking. Night ended with Maggie getting her Dad’s tractor and driving over the car until it was crushed.”

Even though Daryl knows this story ends with Hershel kicking Paul out of his house he has to laugh at the image. He can’t wait to meet Maggie and Glenn both, and he hopes that Aaron has them up to the cabin this year. Maybe bring Sasha and Rosita and have Paul on the couch like he and Eric had talked about years ago.

Aaron is frowning off into space, “It was a nice car, and the boy’s parents called the police to press charges. Maggie and Jesus were both arrested…Maggie told the cops and her dad both the truth, that it was her idea and she’d been the one driving the tractor. Paul lied and said it was him, and since he already had a record…” Aaron trails off.

Daryl winces; his laughter fading. He’s familiar with this story, although he’d never willingly taken a fall for anyone. He knew what it was to be assumed guilty regardless of who you were and what you’d actually done. Growing up he was “that Dixon kid” and he sometimes wondered if the reason he helped Merle out with the Sons so often was because he thought he might as well get something out of his reputation.

“Anyway,” Aaron continues, “Hershel was able to keep Paul from going to juvie by the skin of his teeth and by paying a small fortune. Sent him to live with another family after that. When I first met Maggie she and her father were still on very bad terms, she was furious with him. I don’t think they fully reconciled until after she found Paul again. I think the only reason they still spoke to each other was her stepmother’s doing.”

Aaron clicks to the next picture. This is one of Paul and Aaron both, standing next to each other in their pajamas glaring at whoever is taking the picture. Aaron’s curls are pointing in a hundred different directions and Paul is clutching a mug of coffee for dear life. Glenn’s caption reads: Exhausted homosexuals angry the straights woke them up before dawn on Christmas morning.

There’s a reply from Aaron that reads, The Secret Gay Agenda is getting seven hours of sleep.

Aaron lips twitch and he clicks to the next picture. It looks to be taken just before or after the previous one, Maggie has joined the pair of them and is kissing Paul’s cheek. His eyes are squeezed shut and his face scrunched up in irritation. The next photo is just Paul with his arm around Maggie, he’s rolling his eyes but there’s a smile fighting to come out.

“I remember when it happened,” Aaron says, “We were all supposed to meet in the library for a study session. All the GREATMS, it was for one of the required courses and we all had the worst professor…anyway, Maggie never showed. Glenn was having kittens since she wouldn’t even answer her phone. We all split up to find her—Sasha went to her dorm, Glenn went to where she was working, Eric and I checked the coffee shop on campus. We saw her deep in conversation with this beautiful guy. That’s the first time I saw Paul, and I was ready to…” Aaron laughs, “I don’t know. Some sort of bro code thing, tell off this guy for making the moves on my best friend’s girl. Thank god Eric was there, his gaydar was impeccable.

“Maggie had this huge smile, and said, ‘This is my brother Paul!’” Aaron has that frown again, “Paul said ‘Foster brother, and most of my friends call me Jesus.’ Like…do you remember what I told you about how Jesus likes to…distance himself? Runs away when you try to pin him down?”

“I remember everything we talked about,” Daryl says, “I think about it all the time. Only conversation I’ve had in more than thirty years, and…well. It was with you.

“At the time I thought he was just clarifying things,” Aaron says, “But I remember…Maggie always refers to him as ‘her brother’. I think he was trying to get her not to do that, but good luck trying to get Maggie not to do something. Paul and I talked a bit about that, about how he didn’t come back to the farm or speak to Hershel for years after he met Maggie again. I asked him why, was he mad at Hershel for kicking him out? And  he said no, that he understood why Hershel did it and was just glad he did everything possible to keep him from going to juvie. I asked Jesus again why, and he finally admitted that the year he spent on the farm was the happiest year he’d had since his family had died and he’d fucked it up and was scared of doing it again. That he’d loved the Greenes and it scared him.”

Aaron sighs, “It’s just…it made me think a lot about my own parents for the first time in years. We haven’t spoken since I was eighteen. Didn’t hear anything from them when my book was published, or when Eric died…hell, they probably didn’t even know I had a boyfriend that I was as good as married to. I talked to Hershel about it once, he said he respected me for that. Hadn’t gone to his own father’s deathbed and didn’t regret it.”

Aaron is quiet, whatever thoughts he’s having he keeps to himself. Just as well, Daryl has a lot of thoughts of his own. He’s thinking of kin, of how Merle always told him that your blood was the most important thing. Only people you could trust when it came down to it. Didn’t matter if they was assholes like their daddy you looked out for ‘em. Stayed loyal.

Daryl studies Aaron’s profile and for the first time wonders what would have happened if he’d told Merle exactly what he was and had no intention of denying it. Would Merle have stayed loyal? Would he tell Daryl that if he went through with it they would never talk again? If he did could Daryl have walked away like Aaron had? If he had and Merle came back and said he was sorry could he have forgiven him like Paul had forgiven Hershel? Could he have found someone who wasn’t blood who cared for him just as fiercely? A friend who called him ‘brother’ the way that Maggie did with Paul?

It’s a foolish and pointless train of thought, Daryl knows this. He’s dead and he can’t go back and change the past. He grew up in a different time, in a different world than these kids. Fuck, where would he have gone? Some big city like Atlanta, or an even bigger one like New York? Fuck, he would probably been just as miserable forced to live somewhere like that as he was living in the closet. Those big city folks wouldn’t have cared about the gay thing but they probably would have cared about the “redneck trash” thing.

“Paul said the next family he went to live with weren’t great people,” Aaron murmurs, pulling Daryl out of this train of thought, “Actually what he said was he hopes ‘when they die they burn in hell forever.’ His exact words.”

“Dang,” Daryl says, “Must’ve been real assholes if the guy y’all call ‘Jesus’ feels that way ‘bout ‘em.”

“It’s weird,” Aaron says, “I never…I mean, our circumstances were very different, but talking to him about moving around from one family to the next and always being the new kid in school, never quite belonging…I felt that way too, growing up. Always moving, and while I had the same family they may as well been cardboard cutouts instead of parents. Like living with two strangers. I told him the first time I felt like I belonged was at school, meeting Eric and the rest of the GREATMS. He said it was the same thing for him. I mean, the first time since his family died.”

Daryl is quiet before he whispers, “I ain’t never felt that. Not while I was alive, at least. Closest thing was my grave at the bottom of the ridge.”

Aaron shakes himself and clicks Facebook closed. “Sorry,” he says, “Just…whole trip made me think, is all.”

“Ain’t gotta apologize to me,” Daryl says, “I like hearing about your friends. I want to meet ‘em all some day. Want you to have Paul back…he’s…” Daryl picks at his nails, “He’s a little shit and I can’t figure him out, but he’s…I like how you are when he’s here. And it’d just be nice to see ‘im again. Hear this sorta stuff from his own mouth.”

“I was able to get a ton of research done,” Aaron murmurs, “Even if the library was closed to the public for the holidays. Jesus being friends with the librarians was a huge help, I got to roam through the archives unattended accept for him. I owe him. Joked about paying him a salary to be my research assistant, he likes doing research as much as I do. Thinks of it as exploring more than anything else.”

Daryl rolls his eyes, “Both of you are such fucking nerds.”

Chapter Text

Aaron writes the book about “Daryl” much faster than the one he just finished. He writes like a machine, sketching out the story of Daryl and Merle McManus, two brothers who fought in the Civil War before joining a gang that terrorized Reconstruction Era Georgia.

It’s…it’s something else for Daryl to read it. He remembers how he felt last year when Aaron woke up and wrote character notes about him, words like “very attractive/sexy” and “very intelligent” making Daryl question Aaron’s powers of perception. The character of Daryl McManus has a background that matches the general outline of Daryl Dixon’s, even if separated by a hundred years of history. It’s so different but at the same so similar. Aaron wrote a bit where McManus’ daddy beat him bloody that echoed an experience of Daryl’s so strongly he had to get up and leave his spot reading over Aaron’s shoulder and drift outside for a bit. Watch some of his animals until that dull panicky feeling left. He wondered how the fuck Aaron had known that, had summed up the blank way Daryl felt during those beatings, like he was gone and watching them happen to someone else. Of having to patch himself up after.

Aaron also writes how Daryl McManus slowly realizes he’s attracted to men with an uncanny accuracy. Daryl McManus noticing the V of a man’s torso, eyes crawling over those hip lines (Apollo’s belt, as Aaron refers to them). Daryl McManus getting angry and terrified and picking fights with handsome men, the only way he knew how to respond to such feelings.

One of the worst is when Aaron writes of Daryl McManus being beaten within an inch of his life and left for dead by Merle’s gang. Again Aaron captures the terror and agony Daryl felt as he fought his life with preternatural accuracy. If Daryl didn’t know better he would have thought he must’ve told Aaron the details when they talked and just forgot.

Although this is nothing compared to when Aaron writes of Daryl McManus surviving. Of him getting patched up by a widow woman who takes care of him, of Daryl befriending a sheriff on the trail of Merle’s gang. Of him falling in love with a good man. Of Daryl McManus nervously kissing a man for the first time. It…it does his head in. Makes him feel agitated and restless, something gnawing away at his insides that no longer exist.

Thing is, Daryl McManus has it a lot harder than Daryl Dixon ever did. While being a gay man was hardly easy back when Daryl was alive the character Aaron writes about was born a hundred years earlier. A hundred years earlier, but Aaron still managed to make it seem believable that McManus was able to get away from his brother’s gang, able to find people that valued him, able to fall in love and have some happiness. Able to live past forty.

Daryl doesn’t have a name for the feeling he gets as he starts thinking of more useless what-ifs. Thinking about things that could have been is useless for the living and even more so for the dead, yet Daryl finds his mind turns to that direction again and again.

*************************************************

On the anniversary of Eric’s death in March Aaron goes back to Atlanta for the day. When he returns to the cabin he’s tight-lipped and quiet for the first several hours. Finally he says, “That was a fucking mistake. The only person besides Eric I really want to talk to on this day is you, but I especially don’t want to talk to fucking Robertha while we stand over his grave.”

Aaron rubs his face, “I…at what point is it acceptable for me to no longer speak to her?”

“Yer askin’ me?” Daryl says, “Keep tellin’ you this ain’t my area.”

*************************************************

Hey pal—

Talked to my favorite librarian and yours today. She got the password for UGA and Georgia State’s databases on the down-low and I’m passing them on to you. She also said she’d be happy to pull more records for you, even trusts me enough to leave a few in my care so when you come up this weekend you can take a look. Let me know if there’s anything in particular you want me to look for. :) Pls no spoilers.

Aaron studies the email from Paul for a moment before typing up a response. Watching him do it is painful; he spends more time writing and rewriting a brief reply than he does scenes in the books he makes his living on. Spends more time than he does replying to any of his other emails, even important ones from his publisher that have to do with things like book tours, royalty issues, and interviews to promote the new book.

“You really need to butch up,” Daryl mutters. He’s taken a liking to that phrase, especially when it comes to Aaron. It’s April, and Aaron has spent the past three months bouncing between Atlanta and the cabin. He leaves the TV on for Daryl and when he gets back fills him in on his goings on in Atlanta. Paul’s name comes up a lot; he’s apparently been assisting Aaron in his research. According to Aaron they’ve spent several Saturday nights at the campus library and it’s “almost like being in college again.”

“Jesus loves to do research,” Aaron murmurs, “Thinks of it as exploring more than anything else. Eric never got that, he thought I was limiting myself by being a slave to facts and details no one cared about, but it’s all about discovering new things. I’ve gotten so many ideas and solved so many plot problems by learning something new. Of course Eric was better to bounce ideas off of, Jesus just plugs his ears and says ‘no spoilers’. Which is frustrating, I hate spoiler culture. I don’t think it takes away from the plot to know what happens, finding out why or how is just as interesting. More so, as far as I’m concerned.”

Daryl stares at him, “Man, you realized you just compared him to your husband, right? What’s the fucking deal with you two? You want to be with him or what?”

Aaron is still busy scrolling through his e-mails, opening one from Glenn.

Hey bro—

I talked to Maggie and we’re going to take you up on your offer to stay the cabin for a few days while you’re in LA. You are honestly a life saver, the Missus and I haven’t gone anywhere alone since the tater tot arrived and we desperately need it.

Sorry again for not coming to LA with you. :(

 

Aaron types his reply much quicker than his one to Paul.

Don’t worry about not coming, I honestly didn’t think you’d be able to make it but bro code demanded that I make the offer. Tara’s the one who has to grovel to make it up to me, she’s neither growing a tiny human inside her nor responsible for the care of one but she still ditched me. If Jesus ditches me too I’m going to have to rent some friends.

We’ll work out the details when I’m in town this weekend, most important rule is leaving the TV on for the ghost.

“Again without askin’ me if I care if we have company,” Daryl says, but he’s all talk. He’s been wanting to “meet” Maggie and Glenn for ages; he’s just sad that Aaron won’t be here at the same time, he’ll be off in Hollywood rubbing shoulders with actual movie stars. From what Daryl has gathered Aaron had invited all of the GREATMS to go to California and attend the premiere of the movie adaptation of Mercy for the Lost. Really sold it too, apparently the studio would be paying for all the hotels and flights and shit, they just needed to show up. Glenn and Maggie had backed out because little Hershel was just too young to bring with them and neither of his parents felt comfortable traveling that far without him. The premiere wasn’t until the end of May and that was far too close to Rosita’s due date for her or Sasha to go. That left Tara and Paul, and Daryl thinks that Aaron is genuinely hurt that Tara “ditched” him. Up until a few weeks ago the three of them were sending excited emails to each other about what they wanted to do while they were on Aaron’s dime, then Tara had something come up at work and had to back out.

Daryl remembers the bitchy conversation Aaron had with Paul about it; the latter saying, “See, this is why we’re not friends anymore. This and the fact that she kept trying to set me up as a stud for Rosita. And the fact that she hogs the blankets when she gets drunk and stays over. And the fact that her taste in women is worse than my taste in men.”

“My finger is hovering over the unfriend button on Facebook as we speak,” Aaron said in mock-seriousness, “She does have some horror shows in her dating history. I need to set her up with this adorable lesbian doctor who lives up here, but I’m not sure if she’s Tara’s type.”

“We want to set her up with a woman who isn’t her type,” Paul said, “Because her ‘type’ is ‘hot mess’. Wait, we’re not friends anymore, I forgot. She can die alone.”

*********************************************

Aaron finishes the first draft of what he’s taken to calling Knots Untie a few weeks before he’s set to go to LA. Daryl has tried to keep himself from getting too attached to the story because he knows Aaron will change it but it’s easier said than done. When Andrea calls Aaron for her initial thoughts Daryl glares at the little picture of her that comes up.

“First things first,” Andrea says after initial pleasantries, “this is good. Better than good, I’d go far as to say it has the potential to be your best so far.”

“Well, I’m only three books in, it doesn’t have much competition,” Aaron says, although Daryl can tell he’s pleased that she thinks so.

“Story and plot wise it’s solid—there’s a few scenes you need to rewrite or trash and a few you need to expand on but that’s just fine-tuning. The characters for the most part are great; Daryl’s amazing and the readers are going to love him. So is Sheriff Lincoln and the Widow McBride. Her in particular, you could do an entire book just about her.”

“I’m sensing a ‘but’ coming,” Aaron replies.

“Well, I’m telegraphing that ‘but’ as loudly as I can. Anyway, the biggest problem—and you really aren’t going to like this—is the romance.”

Aaron scowls, “What’s wrong with the romance?”

“To be blunt? The love interest himself. Jason is boring as fuck. I’d cut him or re-write him completely.”

“The romance is important,” Aaron says, “Daryl gets to fall in love and be happy, it’s the entire theme of the book. I’m not interested in some…tragic lonely queer caressing his dead boyfriend’s shirt. Those are a dime a dozen.”

“I didn’t say to cut the romance,” Andrea says patiently, “I said cut the love interest because the guy you paired him up with is boring. Pair him with Sheriff Lincoln, maybe—“

“Sheriff Lincoln is like a brother to him, and that’s equally important since Daryl’s own brother is fucking trash.”

“Yer on thin fucking ice, man,” Daryl snaps. That has been one thing about the story that he is hoping Aaron changes. Daryl knows his brother was a simple-minded bit of white trash but he had his good points.

“Speaking of Merle, he needs a lot of work too. I know part of it is he’s abusive, but I still have trouble buying that Daryl would swallow all the shit he does in the first half if there wasn’t something good about Merle. You need to humanize him more, and I’m surprised I have to tell you that.”

“Fucking thank you,” Daryl says, then immediately feels appalled that he and his nemesis agree on something.

Aaron frowns, “Ok, you have a point about Merle. It’s hard…it’s just hard to find the humanity in a guy who treats someone you l- someone you care about that badly.”

Daryl doesn’t have to breathe so it’d be inaccurate to say those words knock the wind out of him. They knock the something out of him, and all he can do is stare at Aaron’s profile as he scowls down at his phone.

“Don’t fall in love with your characters,” Andrea says, “It’s hard to stay objective, as you demonstrated. Work on Merle, and Jason. Especially Jason. Give him an edge, he’s just this generic nice guy. Plus he’s a wimp. I have absolutely no idea why Daryl falls so hard for him; why this is the key to his closet and he’s willing to risk everything including his friendship with Sheriff Lincoln to be with him.”

Aaron is still scowling, and Daryl wonders if this is a thing that’s non-negotiable in terms of story. Daryl doesn’t agree with Andrea about Jason but part of that is he’s so captivated by the idea of a version of himself allowing himself to fall in love. Or rather a living version of himself that doesn’t have more than three decades worth of some serious fucking introspection.

Aaron lets out a frustrated sigh, “Ok, you’re right. I’ll give it some thought.”

“I always am,” Andrea says, “Seriously, though—this is great. I think you have something really special here; and I’m impressed and pleasantly surprised you were able to bang it out so fast.”

“I was,” Aaron says, scowl fading and replaced by a smile, “I was really inspired.”

*************************************************

The week between Aaron leaving for LA and the arrival of the Rhees is long and boring. Daryl tries to focus on the TV shows Aaron leaves playing for him but he’s too excited to meet Glenn and Maggie, while at the same time restless and missing Aaron. Like so many of his thoughts these days it’s pointless but he can’t help trying to imagine what it’d be like to go with him. What it’d be like if he’d been born thirty years later and had “Daryl McManus’” guts to go out and be himself. Go with Aaron (not as his date, despite any almost declaration Daryl’s imagination isn’t that great) and Paul in place of Tara. Shock the beautiful Hollywood types with his redneck ways. Just when Daryl’s about to go out of his mind with boredom he senses that someone has entered his haunt, and he goes outside to meet the Rhees.

Glenn is handsomer than his photos, glossy black hair getting long and a pleasant dusting of facial hair around his mouth. Photos also don’t convey the animated way he smiles or how soft his eyes get when he looks at his wife. Maggie has sharp green eyes and certain jut to her jaw, and Daryl has a feeling she’s used to getting her own way.

He drifts after them as they enter the cabin, ooh-ing and ah-ing over everything, especially the view from the windows.

“He really does leave the TV on,” Glenn says, “I thought he was kidding about the ghost.”

Maggie laughs, “What, Tara didn’t convince you that the cabin ghost is real?”

“Well, I thought that was just Tara being Tara,” Glenn replies, fiddling with the remote. Just to fuck with him Daryl switches the TV off then back on, laughing when Glenn jumps and even harder at the exaggerated way he sets the remote down and scurries after his wife.

After touring the house and inspecting the downstairs rooms they decide to sleep in the king size bed up in Aaron’s loft. “Aaron said we could if we promise to change he sheets then burn sage to get rid of the hetero cooties,” Glenn says, reclining on said bed and waggling his eyebrows at Maggie. He runs a hand over the mattress, “Look how big it is.”

“You expecting to get lucky?”

“Actually now that I’m in here and there’s not baby screaming I’m expecting to take a nap.”

Maggie laughs, “Yeah?” and just like that she’s pulling her shirt over her head to reveal a lacy black bra, “Not interested?”

“I am becoming more interested,” Glenn says, and when Maggie reaches behind her to unhook her bra Daryl bolts downstairs, outside the cabin, and down to his grave. He considers staying there for the duration of Glenn and Maggie’s visit.

*************************************************

Thankfully Glenn and Maggie do things that are more interesting during their trip. There’s a lot of hiking, a lot of relaxing on the porch just jawing at each other, and when they go swimming they bring actual suits so Daryl isn’t completely mortified. He likes the two of them as much as he thought he would; their conversations are interesting and there’s a lot of playful banter between the two of them.

They play a very intense, competitive game of Scrabble on the second night that involves a lot trash talk. Glenn loses spectacularly and Maggie threatens to put the scoresheet on the refrigerator for Aaron to see when he gets back. The evening ends in a playful wrestling match that ends with them racing each other up the steps into the loft while Daryl excuses himself.

The jawing at each other is probably Daryl’s favorite thing. He listens keenly for any mention of Paul, Aaron, or Tara, anxious to learn new details of his friends.

“I’m glad Aaron didn’t sell this place,” Maggie says thoughtfully one morning. She and Glenn are sipping coffee on the porch and enjoying the early morning sunshine.

“So am I,” Glenn says, “We need to come up here more often. All of us; squeeze in Sasha, Rosita, Tara, and Jesus. Have a party.”

“Pretend we’re back in college,” Maggie says, “Camping out in these woods and telling each other ghost stories.”

To Daryl’s disappointment they mostly talk about their son—currently staying with Auntie Sasha and Auntie Rosita to give them a practice run for parenting—and people that Daryl doesn’t know of. He still listens eagerly, relaxing next to them when they sit on the porch or curled up on the couch staring dreamily at the fireplace.

On the last night of the Rhees’ visit Maggie is showering while Glenn is curled up on the couch reading on his weird little tablet thing. The thing is a bit like those magic phones and a laptop and Daryl is fascinated by it. Daryl looks over his shoulder with interest and is unsurprised to see he’s reading Vengeance for the Plunderers. He’s just at the part when Clem unknowingly crosses Negan’s path when his phone rings, making him jump. Daryl glances down at the screen and sees a picture of Tara sticking her tongue out.

“Oh my god Glenn!” she says before he can say anything, “I’m so glad you took a break from sexing your wife to answer the phone, I need someone to squee with!”

Glenn’s eyebrows raise, “Well, hello to you too. Why are we squeeing?”

“Do you have internet up there? Have you seen the pictures Aaron posted on Facebook?”

“Yes, we have internet but no, I haven’t,” Glenn says, “We’ve been doing the whole ‘avoid outside distractions’ thing.”

“Well if you’re taking a breather from all the kid-free sexing you two have been doing—“

“We’ve actually sleeping more than anything else,” Glenn says.

“I fucking wish,” Daryl mutters.

Tara ignores his interruption, “Then pull up Facebook now. Like I said I need to squee.”

Glenn closes out of his book and brings up the internet which is also on his tablet. Daryl leans eagerly over Glenn’s shoulder as he connects to the internet then goes to Aaron’s Facebook. The post at the very top is titled, “I make a fool of myself on the red carpet.”

Daryl’s not sure what Aaron means by that, he can’t see anything foolish about the pictures he’s posted. Very much the opposite, in the first picture he’s wearing a dark red suit over a black shirt, beard the perfect length and curls trimmed. He’s grinning at the camera and even with goofy expression words like “dashing” and “debonair” come to mind.

“Glenn! He went with the burgundy suit!” her voice is high-pitched and she sounds far too excited by this information.

“Who you talking to?” Maggie says, emerging from bathroom in a robe and toweling off her wet hair.

“Oh, just Tara,” Glenn says, looking almost guilty, and clicking away from the internet as Maggie comes to sit by him.

“Why’s Tara calling? Won’t you see her on Monday?”

“Um, just wanted to talk about Aaron’s movie.”

“Is that Maggie? Put her on speaker phone!”

“I don’t think—“

Tara is loud enough and Maggie can hear her from where she sits next to her husband, “Yeah, put on speaker phone,” Maggie says with a smile.

Glenn looks extremely uncomfortable as he hits the speaker phone and Tara’s voice burbles out, “Glenn, are you looking at the pictures?”

Again Glenn looks oddly guilty before bringing the internet back up. Maggie leans over his shoulder and smiles, “Wow, he’s looking sharp. Think the last time I saw him in a tux was at our wedding.”

He went with the burgundy suit!” Tara repeats with barely contained excitement that makes Maggie raise one eyebrow.

“Yeah, it looks good on him,” Maggie says, “Oh, there’s one of Jesus, Glenn—“

Her husband dutifully taps on the photo of Paul to enlarge it, and Daryl thinks that fucker should have laws against looking that good. His own suit is a deep blue, long hair cascading down his shoulders. He’s looking over one shoulder with a half smile on his face and Daryl could believe he’s a movie star himself. Maggie smiles down and reaches over her husband’s arm so she can tap the little heart icon, “liking” the photo. She then taps to the next photo, this one of Aaron and Paul in what looks like the back of a limousine, Aaron wearing  mirrored sunglasses and a comically serious expression while beside him Paul’s laughing hard, eyes squeezed shut and head thrown back.

“Looks like they’re having fun,” Maggie says with a smile, “I’m glad, Jesus needed it.”

“Ugh, I know. I’m so jealous, I heard Gillian Anderson would be there and I almost caved and went along. Just shows what a good friend I am that I stood strong.”

Maggie frowns down at the phone in Glenn’s hand, “What’s that supposed to mean? I thought you couldn’t go because of work—“

“As if I’d let a little thing like work stand in the way of meeting the woman who made eleven-year-old Tara realize she was a lesbian. I just didn’t want to be a cock block; I’ve got such a good feeling about this trip, you guys!”

Glenn shuts his eyes as Maggie glares at him, “I still don’t follow. You mean Aaron and Jesus? You wouldn’t be cock blocking anything, they’re just friends.”

“For now…” Tara says in a singsong voice.

“Well, we should probably get going, Tara—“ Glenn tries to say. Tara, bless her, doesn’t get the hint.

“I call being Jesus’ best man when then get married,” Tara says, “Glenn already has dibs on Aaron.”

Maggie is looking at her husband with thunder on her face, “Aaron’s never felt that way about Jesus. Why would…what makes you think they’d get together now?”

“Oh, come on! They’re perfect for each other! Who do we know who’s as nice as Aaron? Jesus! Who has as weird of a sense of humor as Jesus? Aaron! I mean, they’ve been practically dating since Jesus broke up with Javi anyways.”

Maggie’s mouth twists, “They’re friends. Nothing’s changed.”

“Well,” Tara says, “Maybe it will if they spend some time alone together out being glamorous in LA. Burgundy suit, Maggie!”

“I don’t see what the fuck’s the deal with the color of his suit,” Maggie snaps.

Tara’s quiet for a second, finally realizing that Maggie is pissed at this line of conversation. When she answers she sounds a little hesitant, “Um…well, they gave him a choice between burgundy and black, he said he thought classic was best and he’d look stupid in red but then Jesus told him it was boring and would be wearing something with color—“

Maggie’s face twists, “So what? That doesn’t mean anything.”

“Well, it means he cares about what Jesus thinks of his looks—“

“Or he’s just been goaded into it. He’s right, the red does make him look stupid, it was probably a joke on Jesus’ part. Tara? It was nice talking to you, but I’ve got to make a phone call.”

She gives her husband a withering stare before marching up the steps to he loft. Glenn turns his phone off to speaker and makes his goodbyes to Tara; saying he’ll talk to her more on Monday when she asks what the deal with Maggie is.

Maggie comes down the steps with her phone cradled against her ear and heads outside to the porch. Glenn hesitates a moment then follows her, Daryl drifting after them both.

“Maggie, come on,” Glenn says. His wife ignores him, her face still filled with thunder. Daryl drifts over to Maggie and leans in so he can listen to their conversation. He hears nothing but the phone ringing before voicemail clicks on.

“Hi, you’ve reached Jesus, sometimes known as Paul Rovia. Leave me a message after the beep, or better yet text me.”

“Hey Jesus,” Maggie says, “Just checking in on you. Hope you’re having fun, give your big sis a call, ok? Got some things I want to talk about, rather not wait until you get back.” She hangs up then gives her husband a death glare until he has to look away. “So no one was going to tell me that everyone’s trying to fix Jesus up with Aaron?”

Glenn shifts uncomfortably before meeting his wife’s thunder-filled eyes, “No one’s trying to do anything. Just…can see what’s happening, and think it’s a good thing.”

“Aaron and Jesus,” Maggie says, smiling in a way that conveys she’s pissed off more than a scowl would do, “a good thing.”

“Yeah,” Glenn says, “It’s been over two years, I think Aaron’s ready.”

“Oh, Aaron’s ready,” Maggie snaps, “Well that’s all that matters, right?”

“Well, Jesus is ready too,” Glenn says, “I mean, I wouldn’t have wanted him with Aaron ten years ago, but he got his shit together and has kept it together for years.”

“Man, I’m on your side but you can’t win this one,” Daryl mutters at Glenn. Daryl’s pretty clueless when it comes to the fairer sex for obvious reasons but even he knows when a woman—especially one like Maggie—is in a mood like this the best thing a man can do is keep his stupid trap shut.

Maggie narrows her eyes, “So what, now he’s finally good enough to be Aaron’s consolation prize?”

“That’s an incredibly shitty way to think of it,” Glenn says, “I mean, would you call your stepmom a ‘consolation prize’?”

“My dad didn’t know Anette for over ten years before deciding ‘she’d do’,” Maggie counters, “And my mom and Anette weren’t friends either. How would you feel if when you died I got with one of our friends? I don’t know…Dante? Or Kal?”

Glenn’s face gets serious, “I’d be dead. I wouldn’t care.”

“So you think people just…stop? Gone forever?”

“I know people don’t just stop,” Daryl mutters, “I still agree that’s a shitty way to look at it.”

“Ok,” Glenn says, “I wouldn’t want you to be alone. I’d want you to be happy,” he pauses, “But Dante, definitely. Not Kal.”

“Well it doesn’t matter what you think,” Maggie says, “It’s what Aaron thinks, and after some of the shit he said to Jesus when he came up here to check on him—” Maggie’s color is rising.

“That was years ago,” Glenn says, “He was grieving. Lashing out. You can’t—“

“I know he was grieving. That’s why he’s still our friend and I didn’t slap him when he told me. But he still doesn’t get to date my brother after that. He’ll hurt him, I know he will.”

Daryl’s heart jerks then, and he thinks of the memory he got slapped with last summer when he laid his hands on Paul, of Aaron’s face ugly and full of disgust, I’m one of only half a dozen men you haven’t fucked. That memory alongside his family’s funeral and Hershel kicking him out.

“Come on, Maggie,” Glenn says softly, “This is Aaron we’re talking about. He’s a good guy. I mean, better than Fucking Alex, right?” he smiles a little, trying to lighten the mood.

Maggie refuses to be charmed, “Really? That how low our bar is for Jesus? A guy who’s not as bad as Fucking Alex?”

Glenn sighs, “I don’t know what to say, Maggie. They’re both grownups, and Aaron’s my best friend.”

Maggie clenches her jaw, “I know Aaron’s a good person and you love him. But he’s the wrong guy for Jesus, there’s too much history there.”

“Why?” Glenn says, “I know that they didn’t always get along, but people change. And Aaron…he’s had a lot to wrap his head around these past few years. Go easy on him.”

Maggie looks tired instead of angry, “Look, I love Aaron, I do. But Jesus is the one I’m looking out for here.”

“He’s a big boy,” Glenn says, “He knows how to take care of himself.”

“I know he can, he’s been doing it his entire life,” Maggie says, “That doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to have someone in his corner. I’m just,” she sighs, “I’m just going to talk to him, make sure he’s ok.”

“He’s fine,” Daryl says loyally, “You got Aaron all wrong. He didn’t mean them things he said. You didn’t…you didn’t see how tore up he was right after.”

Maggie obviously can’t hear him. She tells Glenn she’s done discussing this then goes back inside. Her husband follows her with a sigh. Daryl stays on the porch, staring off at the setting sun and turning over things in his mind.

Chapter Text

Aaron has been reading the online archives of a nineteenth century newspaper called The Carrier Dove for the past three hours. It’s a periodical devoted to the biographies of prominent spiritualists of the era; and Daryl is thinking about cutting off the internet. Spiritualism doesn’t play a major role in Knots Untie, according to Aaron it was just the inspiration for setting it in this particular time period. Daryl’s seen him stuck in one of his “research rabbit holes” before and he has a feeling that Aaron will probably devote another three hours reading the cramped text and scanning the ink illustrations while not getting a single word of writing done. He can’t do much for Aaron by way of paying him back for all the happiness the man’s given him but he can be useful in this area. Bring him back to the job at hand.

Daryl decides to give Aaron another hour and tells himself that it’s not because part of him is mortified beyond belief over what Aaron might actually write. The first draft had been hard enough, but the second draft…ever since Aaron returned from LA he’s taken Andrea’s advice about “spicing up” the love interest to heart. Jason is now a carpetbagger with ideas of reform and a target of Merle’s gang. There’s a bunch of interesting historical fact that Aaron blends into the story which is all well and good. What isn’t is the fact that Jason is also sexually confident, experienced, and openly flirtatious. He ruthlessly seduces Daryl before falling in love with him, and Aaron writes about Daryl and Jason fucking a lot. In the kind of detail that mortifies Daryl, he has to go hide by his grave a few times until he’s gotten ahold of himself. Aaron writes about “Daryl” doing the sorts of things he’d never even dreamed up. Daryl wishes he’d made Aaron promise to change the name, might be easier to read or pretend he was writing about somebody else. Might not get Daryl as worked up, he might be able to read without his face covered. There’s also the fact that what he’s writing gets Aaron worked up. There’s been a few times while writing he’s had to take a break to go upstairs or into the bathroom to jack off while Daryl hides outside on the porch until he’s sure it’s over. Those are the only times that Aaron takes a break, he’s even started eating in front of the computer.

So it took awhile for Daryl to twig to just who the newly-improved “Jason” character reminds him of. Until Daryl and Jason are stuck in a cabin for several months in the winter and the latter starts to grow “a rather handsome beard”. Daryl stares at Aaron, “Seriously, man? You gonna say somethin’ to him, or just let him read it when this dang thing is published in a year?” Daryl wonders if Aaron even realizes what he’s doing, and what Paul’s reaction would be if he knew the kind of detail Aaron used to describe his nipples and what he sounds like while coming.

The latter is speculation on Aaron’s part; Daryl knows that despite what Tara and Glenn were hoping for nothing happened between the two men while they were in LA. He knows Aaron would’ve told him for one, and for two he is privy to all of Aaron and Paul’s many phone conversations, text messages, and emails. Privy to every smile Aaron makes at something Paul says, every re-written email, and every late night scrolling through pictures of the LA trip on his phone. It’s been going on for months; and every weekend Aaron goes to Atlanta Daryl expects him to come back with news. So far it’s been nothing; and now it looks like Daryl will have to wait even longer since Aaron has spent the past few weekends holed up in the cabin working on the second draft. He’s supposed to do a limited book tour this fall for Vengeance for the Plunderers and wants the second draft done before then. Daryl finds himself frustrated with Aaron; he wants to see Paul Rovia again with an intensity that surprises him. Figure out what the guy’s deal is. 

Daryl is brought back to the present when Aaron sits up straight in his chair and leans closer to his computer screen. Daryl looks over his shoulder and sees he’s still reading The Carrier Dove, on the screen is an illustration of a severe woman with piercing eyes, arched brows, and sharp cheekbones. The caption underneath reads, “Maria Rovia.” Daryl leans forward as well, trying to read the article for a few seconds before giving up. The text is laid out in three columns of cramped type that makes Daryl’s head swim to try and read. A few words and phrases pop out, “From her earliest childhood she was a medium, often seeing and conversing with spirits when a little child in her trundle bed” “Renowned trance lecturer” and “from an entire family of distinguished mediums.”

Aaron opens a new tab and types “Maria Rovia” and “spiritualism” into the little search bar. The first hit is a Wikipedia article and Aaron clicks on it. There’s another portrait, this one a painting in color. Maria Rovia’s hair is dark and piled on top of her head and her eyes are a familiar shade of bluish green.

Maria L. Rovia (December 23, 1847 – August 12, 1882) was one of the best-known Spiritualists during the 1870s in the United States. Primarily a medium and trance lecturer, she also wrote articles, poetry, and an autobiography.

Daryl feels a jolt of excitement as he stares at the portrait of Maria Rovia. From the research Aaron’s been doing on Spiritualism Daryl has learned it’s a lot of horse shit and con artists. Little of the shit that these assholes talk about lines up with Daryl’s own experience as a ghost, and what does is just a case of a broken watch being right twice a day. But…

But Paul can hear me sometimes, Daryl thinks, I know he can.

To Daryl’s disappointment instead of going on one of his research rabbit holes Aaron gets up from the computer, fetches his phone, and dials Paul’s number. When the phone picks up Aaron doesn’t wait for Paul to even say hello, burbling out, “Oh my god pal, you’re never going to believe this—“

“Hey Aaron,” an unfamiliar man’s voice says, “Paul’s in the shower.”

Aaron freezes, the excited smile he was wearing sliding off his face. “Who is…Alex? Is that you?”

What the fuck,” Daryl hisses.

“Yeah,” Fucking Alex says, sounding smug, “Can I take a message?”

Daryl sees the vein right between Aaron’s eyebrows pulse, “No,” he says, “Why did you answer his phone instead of letting it go to voice mail?”

“Oh,” Fucking Alex says in a voice that is both cheerful and smug, “Couldn’t figure how to turn his ring tone off, thought I’d answer. Do you want me to tell him you called?”

“No,” Aaron says in a stony voice, “I’ll call him back.”

“Ok. Good talking to you, Aaron. Been awhile. Heard about Derek, I’m sorry.”

Aaron doesn’t bother to correct him, just hangs up. He stands there breathing in and out harshly, phone clenched in his hand. For a second Daryl thinks he’s going to throw it. Aaron paces back and forth across the main floor of the cabin, shoulders up and looking for all the world like he wants to punch someone. Aaron has told Daryl about how Fucking Alex treated Paul and doesn’t blame him, he wants to punch the motherfucker himself.

Aaron snarls and stomps to the downstairs rec room and starts pacing there before he goes to the ping-pong table and grabs a paddle and ball. One half of the table is folded upright so that he can whack the ball against it again and again. Daryl would think doing this as a response was funny if he weren’t mad as hell himself. He’s a bundle of furious energy and wishes like Aaron he could work it out of him physically.

Whack. Whack. Whack. Aaron is making good contact with the ball, it goes whizzing faster and faster with each hit, until one particularly vicious hit sends the ball flying back too fast and goes past Aaron’s paddle.

Goddamnit!” Aaron shouts, hurling his paddle across the room. It hits the far wall with a loud clatter. Aaron’s sweaty and breathing hard as he pulls out his phone again.

“Hey bro,” Glenn says, “What do I owe the honor of this phone call? I thought you were busy being a writer hermit.”

“Hey,” Aaron says, “Sorry to bother you. Is Paul—has Jesus been seeing Fucking Alex again?” Daryl has to hand it to Aaron for getting right to the point with no bullshit chit chat.

“Don’t speak that kind of evil into the universe,” Glenn says in an appalled voice, “I’m pretty sure he hasn’t even talked to Fucking Alex since…man, I don’t know when.”

“I just called to talk to Jesus and Fucking Alex answered,” Aaron replies.

“Oh my god,” Glenn mutters, “I’ll have to talk to Maggie about it, if he is seeing Fucking Alex we’ll need to have an intervention. Why the hell did he answer someone else’s phone? Wait, never mind, I forgot who we were talking about.”

Aaron snorts, “Yeah, it’s typical behavior from that shithead,” his nostrils flare, “Anyway, don’t want to be a gossip, I’m just…I wasn’t expecting that.”

Glenn is quiet for a second before in a deliberately casual voice, “Neither was I. After he broke up with Javi I thought he’d get with…get with a better guy.”

Daryl thinks that even if he hadn’t overheard Glenn and Maggie talking about how all their friends were waiting for Aaron and Paul to get together he’s still pick up on the subtext of that comment. Aaron doesn’t, just says he’ll talk to Glenn later and hangs up.

Aaron has calmed a bit but Daryl can still tell he’s righteously pissed off. He walks across the floor of the rec room, searching for the wayward ping-pong ball, finding it in the hallway leading to the guest rooms. Instead of returning to the table Aaron sits on the floor with his back against one wall and starts tossing the ball down the short hall so that it hits the floor, bounces up, hits the wall, and goes flying back toward Aaron.

Aaron does this for a long time, face and eyes full of thunder. Ping. Ping. Just when Daryl is about to lose his mind Aaron catches the ball and instead of throwing it down the hallway he tosses it from hand to hand.

“Hey Daryl,” Aaron says, “Are you there?”

“Where else’d I be? If start doing that bouncing ball shit again…”

“Can I talk to you?”

“Yer doing it now,” Daryl says, rolling his eyes affectionately. He sits down next to Aaron, resting his arms on his knees, “Gonna tell me why Paul’s with that fuckhead instead of you?”

Aaron closes his eyes and sighs, “We, uh. I haven’t talked to you much about my trip to LA. Um. While I was there I…” he swallows, and his voice is a whisper when he continues, “I realized I’m in love with Paul.”

“Well. No shit,” Daryl mutters, rolling his eyes.

“Like, not just in love,” Aaron says, still whispering, “But like big, sappy gay love where I want to get married in Vermont, adopt two point four children, and start a rustic B & B.” Aaron pauses, “Well, that all sounds fucking awful. Maybe like…go on a quest and fight a dragon or something for him.”

Daryl snorts out a laugh at that, “Ain’t seen many dragons round these parts.”

“Were you ever in love?” Aaron asks quietly, “I know you said you never even kissed a guy, and we talked a bit about your sexuality. But I didn’t think it was polite to ask if there was ever anyone…special.”

Daryl twists his head so he can study Aaron’s face. “Not when I was alive,” he says turning away again, “Had to wait until after.”

“Eric’s the first guy I…I mean, he’s not the only guy I’ve ever slept with. Or even my first boyfriend. But the first guy I was in love with, real love, not a crush or…” Aaron swallows, “We got together within a month of meeting each other and even then I knew he was it. I was only nineteen but I knew. We were together for ten years, all of my twenties…I never had to…” Aaron takes a breath, “I never had to figure this stuff out. How to be sure you’re in love with someone, what to do when you realize you are.”

“Yer asking the wrong ghost. I don’t know much about love,” he bites his thumbnail, and even though Aaron can’t hear him say the words he still struggles to speak them, “I…I dunno if I fell in love with you at first sight, or that night we talked. Maybe a little of both.”

“With Paul it started out…I mean, I don’t know when it started happening. It just…after all this time being his friend stuff changed and I don’t know how or why,” he lays the ping-pong ball flat on the floor beneath one palm and starts rolling it, “I fell for Eric almost at first sight, I thought that was how things worked. That you feel things for people or you don’t. That you know on some level.”

Daryl thinks of the first time he saw Aaron, “Maybe you’re right about feelin’ things right away, but you don’t always know. Or…different people hit you different ways and you don’t realize. Sorry, like I said, I don’t know much ‘bout love.”

“At first I thought, ‘ok, maybe I’m just horny’, and well…you’d have to be dead to think Paul isn’t hot.”

“Trust me, bein’ dead don’t help,” Daryl mutters.

“We were at this party in LA,” Aaron says, “For the movie. Which…talk about surreal, but that’s another topic of conversation…anyway, full of movie stars. Paul wore this blue suit, brought out his eyes…you know, thirteen years and I still have trouble with what color his eyes are…soon as I think they’re blue I realize that no, they’re green…anyway. He looked good, Daryl. Fit right in with these movie stars with their botox and stylists.”

“I know, saw the pictures,” Daryl responds.

“And I kept thinking, ‘I may just be the nerdy writer, but the best looking guy here is the one on my arm.’ Well, not on my arm, but with me. I felt so proud he was there with me, you know? Even as a friend. I was strutting.

“We didn’t get back to the hotel until late, but neither one of us wanted to sleep so he came to my room we sat out on the balcony and just talked all night. He’d changed into a t-shirt and sweats, but I couldn’t stop thinking of him in that suit. I wanted him to put it back on. Then I wanted to be the one to take it off.” Aaron’s voice deepens into a growl that makes Daryl feel fluttery and a little surprised, “It’s not all I wanted to do.”

“Yer telling me?” Daryl rasps out, “I know exactly what you been wanting to do to him, you keep writing ‘bout me doing it instead.”

“I felt a bit like an asshole, thinking that,” Aaron says, “Because some of the stuff we were talking about was…it was some heavy shit, you know? Stuff about our parents, he thinks his mom knew he was gay when he was a kid. So did my mom,” Aaron says with a frown, “She reacted differently than Paul’s mom. Tried to make me more manly, forced me to eat stuff like apples and pork. I can’t stand the taste of either one to this day. Paul said his mom just talked to him very loudly and obviously about a gay friend of hers, told him and John what being gay was and there was nothing wrong with it.”

Daryl can’t think of a response to that. It occurs to him that even though being a gay man isn’t as bad these days as it was thirty years ago it still seems like something parents weren’t ok with. Aaron doesn’t speak to his own parents, Eric had relationship with his mother but she still thought it was wrong, from conversations he’s overheard Rosita’s dad in particular didn’t approve of her dating Sasha. Hershel and the Rhee family seemed warm and accepting of their children’s gay friends; he hadn’t heard anything bad about Tara’s family just that her brother-in-law was “evil as fuck.” It was still nothing compared to actual kin knowing and not only accepting it but doing everything they could to let their kid know it was ok.

“Paul also said that John was straight,” Aaron murmurs with a smile, “They used to do the thing where’d they switch places, Paul going to John’s gym classes while John took Paul’s math classes. Their mom had to call the school a couple times to make sure the right one was taking all his courses, they couldn’t fool her,” Aaron smiles, “Then Paul said they wouldn’t have been able to do that once they were teenagers, he didn’t think he could convincingly fake heterosexuality.”

Daryl chuckles a little at that.

“We talked about travel,” Aaron continues, “I told you about how Eric and I spent a year after we graduated in Nigeria, working for Doctors International.”

“You did, yeah,” Daryl murmurs. He’d been impressed as all hell about that; even if the two men had been quickly burnt out by the experience, saying the organization was full of people who “cared more about being white saviors than actually helping.”

“Paul hasn’t been overseas,” Aaron says, “But he’s seen more of America than I have.”

“Shit, man,” Daryl says, “I ain’t never even been out of the state of Georgia before.”

“I keep…I keep thinking of ways he was like Eric, and ways he’s different. I hate myself for it, but I can’t help it.”

“Think that’s natural,” Daryl says, “You don’t stop loving a guy when he’s dead, y’know? Any new guy is gonna have to measure up.”

“Eric…I told you how he made friends, right? He was interested in people. Good at remembering details because he cared about it. He was a people nerd. Sit down and talk to anybody. And he was always himself, I loved that about him. Wasn’t interested in wasting time faking it. Paul sees people, and he’s interested in them, but…” Aaron thinks, “Outside of them, you know? From a distance. He’s a lot harder to get to know back, it’s taken me…fuck, thirteen years? But you don’t realize it. He sees people but isn’t interested in being seen back. Would rather people see ‘Jesus’ or whatever and not Paul.” Aaron frowns, “I think—I know I haven’t seen him completely. I’ve seen a lot, even some ugly bits, but…I love what I’ve seen. Even the ugly parts, because those made him who he is.”

Daryl’s heart tugs, “I don’t know ‘im as well as you. He can be kind of an asshole with calling me ‘sexy ghost’ and I know he hears me sometimes. I can’t figure him out. But he…” Daryl swallows, “He’s real nice. I was jealous a’ him that first time he came up here. Him being able to do stuff for you I couldn’t. But I’m glad he was able to.”

“I love how kind he is,” Aaron whispers, “Especially since the more I’ve gotten to know him the more I realize he has a lot of reasons not to be. You’ve got that in common, actually.” Roll, roll, goes the little plastic ball beneath Aaron’s hand.

Daryl shifts, remembering the calm, patient way Paul took care of Aaron despite the latter’s grief-fueled lashing out, “I wasn’t kind alive. Not like him.”

“So,” Aaron says, “I’m in love with Paul Rovia,” he rubs his hand over his eyes, “And I have absolutely no idea what to do about it.”

Daryl looks at him out of the side of his eyes, “Well, when I was alive if a guy made me feel like that I’d start a fight with him. From what I understand times is more enlightened now. Fucking…butch up and ask him to be your boyfriend.”

Aaron rolls the little plastic ball faster and faster, “Fuck, Daryl. I’m scared. Like I said, Eric asked me out, and since he died all the practice I’ve gotten in the romance department is a one night stand almost a year ago.”

Daryl feels a vicious stab of jealousy and shock, “You never told me that. Who was he?”

“Which the less said about that debacle the better. I don’t,” Aaron sighs and leans his head back against the wall, “I can’t believe Paul is seeing Fucking Alex again. That guy…he’s awful, and he treats Paul like shit, and I don’t know why he puts up with it. Why he keeps going back to that guy. Like I just said, Paul has a lot of reasons to not be kind and Fucking Alex is one of them.”

“Hey, that one’s on you,” Daryl mutters, not caring if he’s being unfair, “You love the guy and ain’t stuck up here, why haven’t you said nothing?”

“I’d have to be…fuck, Daryl. I’d have to be so careful with him. He’s been through so much, and I don’t…I couldn’t live with myself if I ever hurt him. I keep thinking of the shit I said to him when he came up here the first time. I know he said he forgot about it, but…” Aaron lets out a weary sigh, “I can’t…I need time to think. Figure out my plan of attack.”

“I think you need ta do less thinkin’,” Daryl mutters.

“I’ve got to get this draft done,” Aaron murmurs, “Then the tour…fuck, I don’t want to go on a fucking book tour. I want to stay up here writing and talking to you.”

“So do I,” Daryl whispers, “But…but it’d be nice if you had someone up here who can answer you back.”

“When I get back from the tour,” Aaron says, voice full of determination, “I’ll talk to him then.”

*******************************************

“Ok,” Andrea says, “Woof. You definitely fixed Jason. He’s a real person, and he’s hot. The sparks between him and Daryl are out of this world. The first meeting is great too, Jason Sheriff Lincoln and Daryl look like fools. Fun stuff.”

Aaron makes a face, “‘But’?”

“But dial it back.”

“Dial what back?”

“You know what. But for the record: make the sex scenes less explicit. And cut ninety percent of them. You probably only need the first time and when they find each other again. The second one definitely, that was hot, but more importantly it was emotional and showed how far the two of them have come.”

“I’m not afraid of offending straight people,” Aaron mutters, “They’re gay men and they fuck.”

“You can convey that without a porn break every ten pages. In fact the buildup was hotter than most of the sex scenes. Especially that scene where Daryl’s watching Jason throw his knives, I needed a shower after that. The sex scene actually was a cool-down. There are parts where I forgot I was reading a work of serious literary fiction and thought I’d picked up some soft core porn. Well-written porn, but porn all the same. It gets tedious. Also I could tell you typed some of them one-handed, when was the last time you got laid?”

Aaron makes another face, “Now that’s an unprofessional question.”

“Oh oops,” Andrea says, “forgot that we have a very strict and proper professional relationship, Mr. Raleigh.”

Aaron sighs, “It’s been awhile.”

“Well, maybe you need to get back on the horse. Or not, I’m just saying: dial it back. I need you at a five and you’re at an eleven. Other than that it’s great. Definitely your best one yet. In other news, the studio got back to me on buying the option for Vengeance for the Plunderers.

“How much?” Aaron asks.

She tells him, and Aaron and Daryl are both speechless for several long minutes.

“Mr. Raleigh?” Andrea says, “Are you there?”

“Yeah,” he says, swallowing, “I…just…that’s not the number I was expecting.”

“I told them politely to go fuck themselves,” Andrea says, “Sales are incredible, even better than Mercy. And the film adaptation of that one is doing well, there’s talk of Oscars nominations for best actress and director. One thing that these Hollywood types care about more than money is their shiny trophies. I can get you more cash.”

“Are you shitting me,” Daryl says, goggling at the picture of Andrea on Aaron’s phone.

“I…I don’t want to be greedy—“

“That’s why you pay me to be greedy. Fuck these people, get all the money you can out of them.”

Aaron swallows and says, “I…ok. I’ll defer to your judgement.”

“Of course you will,” Andrea says, “Last note of business—are you ready for the tour?”

“No,” Aaron says petulantly, “I’d rather stay here and start working on another draft.”

“Tough shit,” Andrea says cheerfully, “I know it’s not much fun but put on your big boy pants and get it over with. Besides, you need to have some time to let things marinated before writing again. Clear your head. Find a handsome guy to rail you into the mattress a few times so you can approach things objectively. Oh oops, how unprofessional of me.”

*******************************************

“You are such a fucking pussy,” is the first thing Daryl says to Aaron when he returns from his book tour. One look at his face and Daryl knows he hasn’t talked to Paul.

Aaron also does not talk to Paul when he goes back to Atlanta the following weekend, or the one after that.

“I keep chickening out,” Aaron says to him one evening as he scrolls through his photos of the LA trip yet again. Paul stretched out by the side of the pool, shirt off and looking good enough to eat. Aaron and Paul at Disney Land, in front of the Hollywood sign, at a bar, “I can’t seem to…I can never seem to pin him down for a one-on-one conversation,” Aaron frowns, “Good news is he’s not currently seeing Alex according to Maggie; must have been a very short ‘on again’ phase.”

Daryl rolls his eyes, “Asshole, are you going to wait around for the next one?”

The answer to that question is “yes” apparently, the first frosts are on the ground and Aaron is back to avoiding Atlanta, holing up in the cabin writing, writing, writing. He makes an exception for Thanksgiving, heading down for the day to have dinner with Paul and the GREATMS. When he returns his face is grim with determination, “Ok,” he says, “I think…I think I have a plan.”

“Well, Glory fucking Hallelujah,” Daryl says.

“Maggie and Glenn are going to Michigan this year for Christmas,” Aaron says, “Rosita’s family is coming in from Texas to meet Luis so she and Sasha will be pretty occupied. Tara’s going back home to Tuscaloosa to spend time with her family. That leaves me and Paul without any plans.” He takes in a deep breath, “I’m thinking of inviting him up here for the holidays. I hope you don’t mind, maybe…maybe if it’s just the two of us up here I can do this. Have you here to hold my hand.”

Daryl snorts, “Rather give you a kick in the ass, but whatever it takes.”

Chapter Text

Aaron waits so long to invite Paul up for Christmas that Daryl starts worrying he’s about to pussy out again. He follows the man around the cabin, placing his hand on his shoulder and trying to push as much emotion on him as possible: (butch up butch up butch up fucking STOP BEING A PUSSY)

Daryl’s about to lose his fucking mind when in a Christmas Miracle Aaron’s phone starts playing a familiar song, “Well it's got to be a chocolate Jesus…make me feel good inside…got to be a chocolate Jesus…keep me satisfied…”

Aaron lunges for his phone, nearly tripping over his own feet. He snatches it up off the table, stares at it for a split second with his eyes wide before he taps the answer icon. His voice is even when he says, “Hey, pal. What’s up?”

“Hey,” Paul replies, “Not much, just haven’t heard much from you since Thanksgiving. Wanted to check on you.”

Aaron still has a wide-eyed, deer in the headlights expression, “Oh,” he says, “Y’know. Just. Writing. I’m trying to finish this draft so I can send it to my publisher. Was hoping to have it in by Christmas but that’s not going to happen. Speaking of,” Aaron swallows, “What are your plans for Christmas?”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Paul says, “Probably go to the farm and have Christmas dinner. I mean, Maggie’s gone but Hershel, Annette, and Beth will be there.”

Aaron looks like he’s going to throw up, an expression at odds with the casual way he says, “You could always come up here and spend a few days with me and Daryl. We’re supposed to get snow, so we can try skiing or snowboarding. Or at least you can while I sip coffee in safety.”

There’s a silence on the other end of the line, “I don’t…I mean, I don’t want to disturb your writerly solitude.”

“It wouldn’t be a disturbance,” Aaron says, fingers jiggling restlessly, “Like I said, I’m not going to get it done by then no matter what. I could use a break from it. C’mon, it will be fun. LA part two.”

“LA was a lot of fucking fun,” Paul says, “Ok, tentative yes. Let me talk to Hershel, see if he minds.”

“Good deal,” Aaron says in that same casual voice, even as he pumps his fist in an excited “yes” gesture. He gets ahold of himself and says, “Other than that what’s going on?”

“I’ve been doing a lot of talking Sasha down,” Paul says, “Most of the Espinosa family is coming around, helped by that fact that Luis is the second cutest human alive after my nephew, but her dad is still being a pill. Sasha is two steps away from challenging him to a duel.”

“Is it bad that I hope she does and someone films it,” Aaron says meditatively.

“Pretty bad, pal,” Paul says, although Daryl can hear the smile in his voice. They chat for a while longer, mostly gossip about their friends. Glenn and Maggie are talking about giving Hershel a little brother or sister; Tara has broken up with her girlfriend Alisha much to the relief of them both (“I know calling her an evil bitch is misogynist but it’s all I can think of” “Yeah, I definitely need to set Tara up with this cute lesbian who lives up here”); Sasha’s brother Tyrese is coming for a visit so she doesn’t have to face her in-laws alone (“Fuck, I’m sad to miss Tyrese, he’s awesome” “Me too, even if I don’t head up there I have a feeling the Williams siblings won’t have time to spend with us”).

By the time they say goodbye Aaron has long ago lost his panicked, deer in the headlights expression. Instead he’s smiling and laughing and practically vibrating with happiness. He looks giddy; Daryl can almost see the little hearts floating over his head. When he hangs up he smiles sweetly at his phone for a few seconds. “He said yes,” Aaron says, “Tentative yes, which means definitely. I know he won’t want to go to the farm if Maggie isn’t there. He’ll come up here, and…” He trails off and his face resumes its panicked, deer in the headlights expressions. “Ok,” Aaron says to himself, “I need…fuck, I need to think about how I’m going to do this.”

“Maybe you should stop thinking about it,” Daryl mutters.

“I shouldn’t just spring it on him,” Aaron continues, “Especially the first night, it’d be awkward if he turns me down. Fuck, Daryl, what will I do if he turns me down?”

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Daryl says, “Even if you could hear me I don’t have any good advice.” He fidgets, “I think…I mean, I think he likes you. Whatever you do don’t pussy out on this.”

*******************************************

Aaron is a bundle of nervous energy in the days leading up to Christmas, especially after Paul sends a text to confirm that he’s definitely coming. He plans to come up on the afternoon of the 24th and leave on the day after Christmas. Immediately after reading that text Aaron drives into Blue Ridge. He’s gone for most of the day, when comes back with his hair cut and beard trimmed plus the Jeep is full of crap. White Christmas lights, garlands, a wreath, and a sprig of mistletoe that he’s too chickenshit to hang.

Aaron doesn’t get much writing done during this time either. At least not for his actual novel that he’s getting paid for—he writes a lot of speeches that he practices in front of a mirror. “Jesus. Paul. This might sound crazy, but I love you. No, I can’t lead with that. Ok. Um. Ever since Eric died you’ve been there for me in a way no one else has. No, fuck, I don’t want to lead with that either…”  Aaron’s nervousness even gets to Daryl eventually. Fuck, what if Paul does turn Aaron down? It’s been over a year since Daryl’s seen him and this Christmas might be the last time. Daryl resolves to never mentally complain about Paul calling him “sexy dream ghost” ever again if this works out.

The day before Paul is set to arrive Aaron can’t sit still. He goes outside and chops wood for the fire, when he’s finished with that he comes in and wraps his Christmas presents for Paul. When he’s done with both of those things he paces through the cabin, checking and double-checking that he has plenty of food in the fridge and toiletries in the guest bathroom. Daryl’s about to lose his mind when Aaron says, “Fuck, I need moral support from someone who can actually talk to me. Sorry, please don’t take that the wrong way.”

“I don’t,” Daryl says, “I wish I could talk to you more’n anything, I know you need it.”

Aaron takes out his phone and starts scrolling through his contacts. He has a little list of “most frequently contacted” that includes all of the GREATMS and Paul. As Daryl watches his finger hovers over Glenn’s name before scrolling down. He doesn’t even pause when he gets to Maggie’s name, or Rosita’s. His finger hovers over Sasha’s name for a few seconds before he taps the little “call” icon.

Sasha sounds frazzled when she answers, and Aaron apologizes for bothering her this close to the holidays.

“It’s fine,” she says, sounding exhausted, “I’d be tired and pissed off whether you called or not, you’re actually the least annoying thing I’ve had to deal with today.”

“That bad, huh?” Aaron says, “Jesus said you were about to challenge your father-in-law to a duel.”

Sasha sighs, “It’s been…well, it’s been better than we thought, but thank god Ty is here to calm me down. Rosita’s dad is still a bit…well, he’s not fully onboard. Her mom’s clueless but she’s trying for Luis’ sake. Bit of advice for you in the future: if you get with a guy who has a homophobic family the key to his mom’s heart is grandchildren. Even if she already has a dozen of them.”

Aaron takes in a breath and says, “I…I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.”

“You never know,” Sasha says, “I mean, one day when you’re ready I hope you’re open to the idea of dating someone again—“

“That’s why I called, actually,” Aaron says. He’s bright red, “I…I’m very open to dating again. A particular guy, and his family isn’t homophobic.”

Sasha is quiet, then in a very casual voice, “Oh? Anyone I know?”

“It’s…um. It’s Paul. Jesus.”

“I see,” she says in that casual voice, “Could you hold please?”

“Ok…” Aaron says, brow furrowed.

After a minute of silence Sasha returns, “Ok. I needed to step outside so that my lady doesn’t overhear. Unless you want all of our friends to know within the next twenty minutes that you’re finally going to ask Jesus to be your boyfriend.”

“What…what do you mean?”

“Aaron,” Sasha says and Daryl can practically hear her eyes rolling, “You know Rosita can’t keep secrets this big from Tara, Tara can’t keep secrets from Glenn or Jesus, and both of those guys tell Maggie everything.”

“Me wanting to maybe date Jesus is a big secret?”

“No, it’s just big news. You’re going to make a lot of people very happy, just so you know.”

“What?” Aaron says plaintively, “I mean…what?”

“Aaron,” Sasha says with another audible eye roll, “You do realize that everyone and their brother has had their fingers crossed for the two of you to get together ever since he broke up with Javi?” She hesitates, “Well, Maggie won’t be thrilled.”

“Why,” Aaron says stupidly.

“Why is everyone hoping you two get together, or why won’t Maggie be thrilled? To answer the first: you’re kind of perfect for each other and it would simplify group get togethers. The second: you know how Maggie is, no guy’s good enough for her brother. Not even you.”

“I’m sorry,” Aaron says, “I’m just…I’m having trouble processing this. I mean, I just started thinking of him that way.”

“Oh really?” Sasha says, “Just now?”

“Only since LA,” Aaron says.

“LA was months ago,” Sasha says, “Christ, and people say that lesbians take our time.”

“Says the woman who waited six years to ask her wife on a date.”

“My wife was under the delusion she was straight for those six years,” Sasha fires back, “You don’t have that issue.”

“True,” Aaron says, fidgeting a bit before, “That’s actually…that’s actually why I wanted to talk to you specifically. I need…fuck. I have no idea how to do this. How do you tell your friend you want to be…more than friends?”

“She got drunk one night and kissed me as a joke, not for the first time. Only the next day when she started to play it off instead of doing the usual I just said that I’d decided I wanted her to be my girlfriend and unless she felt the same she needed to find a new joke.”

“Well, I’ve never kissed Jesus, even as a joke,” Aaron says.

“You have so,” Daryl reminds him, “Don’t lie to her, I know you ain’t forgot it.”

“I’m…I’m actually surprised to hear that,” Sasha says, “I’ve kissed Jesus as a joke, I think even Glenn did one night during an ill-advised game of truth or dare.”

“If he did then I definitely wasn’t there, I would’ve remembered that,” Aaron says automatically.

“I’m sure you would,” Sasha says, “You don’t have to kiss him first. You probably shouldn’t kiss him first. Just cut the shit and tell him him to be your boyfriend and why. If he says no then respect it and move on.”

“Moving on,” Aaron says slowly, “Would be hard.”

“I know. If Rosita had just wanted to be friends or was really straight after all part of me would still have a thing for her. It was a risk, but I took it because the reward was worth it.”

“I just…I know he doesn’t do relationships. I don’t…I don’t want to ruin our friendship.”

“Aaron, if you want to be more than friends your friendship is already ruined.”

Aaron frowns, “So…would you have stopped being friends with Rosita if she’d rejected you?”

Sasha makes a thoughtful noise, “No, not completely. In this group that’s not possible, we’re all in each other’s pockets. Maybe ‘ruined’ isn’t the right word. All I know is that if Rosita didn’t say yes it would’ve been painful to be her friend, and I’d probably compare every woman I dated to her. But that’s the same outcome I would’ve gotten if I never took the chance. Those are your choices too; take the risk or keep your mouth shut until another Javier comes along. Or Javier Original, I know they still talk.”

Aaron’s eye twitches, “That sounded suspiciously like you trying to goad me into action.”

“Because it was,” Sasha says, “Look, I think you’d be great together. I know it’s weird and scary for a lot of reasons, but you have a chance for something amazing.”

Aaron lets out a slow breath, “I know. You’re right, that’s why I invited him up here for Christmas. Thank you.”

“Any time,” Sasha says warmly, “Good luck, sweetie. If it helps I’m pretty sure he’s into you too.”

*******************************************

Daryl feels Paul enter his haunt long before he hears him knocking. Aaron jumps, gives the door a panicked look before visibly composing himself then scurries to answer. He opens the door and Daryl sees Paul Rovia for the first time in over a year. He’s wearing a heavy winter coat, a scarf wound around his neck, and a wool ski cap. Under the hat his long hair tumbles freely over his shoulders. Daryl is hovering nervously over Aaron’s shoulder; and when Paul tilts his head up to meet his friend’s eyes Daryl can almost pretend he’s being seen as well. Paul grins, the corners of his eyes crinkling.

“Merry Christmas,” he says.

“Merry Christmas,” Aaron replies. Daryl cranes his neck so he can look at Aaron’s face and is unsurprised to find him grinning back at Paul like an idiot. After a beat he steps aside to let Paul in.

“Did you get a new car?” Aaron asks.

“Nah, it’s a rental. My piece of shit won’t make it up in these mountains.”

“Fuck, I’m sorry,” Aaron says, “I could’ve picked you up—“

“It’s fine, Aaron,” Paul says, smiling again. He kicks the snow off his boots before pulling them off then lets Aaron take his coat and scarf, “I’m just glad to have an excuse to get out of the Greene family Christmas. It’s just not the same without Maggie.”

“Well, thanks for coming,” Aaron says, “I would’ve spent Christmas alone otherwise.”

“What about Daryl?” Paul says with a flash in his eyes.

Aaron smiles, “Alone except for my sexy dream ghost.”

“I changed my mind,” Daryl mutters, “he’s a bad influence on you. You should date somebody else.”

Paul gives Aaron a curious look, “Have you dreamed about him again?”

Aaron shakes his head, smile dimming a fraction, “No, unfortunately. He’s shy or hiding or that was a fluke.”

“But you still think he’s here?”

“I do,” Aaron says, cheeks turning pink, “I know it’s crazy and you’re probably right about it being projection, but it doesn’t matter.”

“I ain’t a projection,” Daryl mutters, “Why were we so excited for him to come up again? He’s so…”

Daryl trails off, understanding hitting him like a clap of thunder. The last time he’d talked to Aaron—the only time—was when Paul first came up here years ago. He’d laid a hand on Aaron’s cheek, Daryl had done the same, and the result was waking up in a dream.

You did it,” Daryl whispers, feeling stupid for not making the connection before now.

“Did what?” Paul asks Aaron.

“Sorry?” Aaron says.

“I did what? You just said…” Paul trails off, eyes far away. He blinks and gives himself a shake, “Sorry, I misheard you.”

“You don’t have a fuckin’ clue, do you?” Daryl whispers, “You ain’t doing none of this on purpose.” He thinks of the article Aaron found on Maria Rovia and wishes the other man had followed up on that research but he’d seemed to have forgotten all about it after finding out Paul was seeing Alex.

Paul frowns and cocks his head to the side, unfocused eyes meeting Daryl’s own.

“Fuck,” Daryl whispers, “if you can hear me…I…tell ‘im I’m here, ok? Tell ‘im he ain’t crazy. Tell ‘im I love him.”

Paul flinches, and his eyes grow shuttered. He turns back to Aaron, smiling in a way that doesn’t touch his eyes, “What’s on the agenda for the next few days?”

“I got us a table at a restaurant in town for tonight,” Aaron says, “Afterward if you want—and I know how this sounds—I was invited to Christmas Eve services at Ezekiel’s church.”

Paul makes a skeptical face, “The open and modern place?”

“Yeah,” Aaron says, looking a little sheepish, “They’re nice people, and there are a few other gay people that attend. But we don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

Paul looks thoughtful, staring off into space, “I…maybe? I think the last Christmas Eve service I went to was during my year at the Greenes.”

“Well,” Aaron says, “I’ll do my best to make this a Merry Christmas, even if my decor can’t touch the Greenes’.”

Paul gives his head another shake and turns back to Aaron, “Well, this place doesn’t look like Christmas has exploded all over it.”

“Full confession: I bought all this shit like, a week ago,” Aaron says with a grin, “Wanted there to be at least an attempt.

“I respect your efforts,” Paul replies, wandering over to the big picture windows overlooking Daryl’s valley.  Winter in the valley is hushed and still, all the life gone to sleep and waiting for spring. It has its own unique beauty, however, particularly with the fresh dusting of snow over everything. The leaves on the trees are gone, revealing views that are blocked during the rest of the year. When the afternoon sun hits the snow just right the whole place turns a riot of rich pinks and purples. It’s a beautiful view, but Daryl finds himself staring at Paul’s profile instead. He has a good one, beard the perfect length, cheekbones sharp, nose with a little ski jump curve. He looks over and sees that Aaron has joined them on Paul’s other side. He’s not being as obvious as Daryl would be if the two men could actually see him but he’s staring at Paul just as hard.

“We never did come up here in the winter time,” Paul says, “Back in school, I mean,” breaking the silence, “Why not?”

“No,” Aaron murmurs, tearing his eyes away from Paul’s face, “We would’ve had to rent a cabin instead of crowding up into a tent and none of our broke asses could afford it.”

“It’s beautiful,” Paul continues, “I mean, when I came up here the last time during the winter I didn’t really appreciate it.”

“I’m sorry,” Aaron says automatically, “I—“

Paul laughs, “Aaron, what have I said about apologizing to me for that? It was two years ago,” he gives the other man a friendly poke in his side, “I only remember it because you keep bringing it up to say sorry.”

“You fucking liar,” Daryl mutters. He hasn’t forgotten last July, laying his hands on Paul and being assaulted by the other man’s memories. He wonders if Paul actually believes the bullshit coming out of his mouth or if like being able to hear Daryl he doesn’t realize what he’s doing.

“Come on,” Paul says, before Aaron can stammer out any further apologies, “Let’s get a hike in before dinner and getting our religion on.”

*******************************************

That evening when they leave for dinner Daryl is restless, drifting down to his grave and back over and over again. Both men had put on clothes nice enough for church and for a first date. Daryl wished he could go with the two of them, metaphorically hold Aaron’s hand for when the right moment came. If the right moment came, although how the fuck would Daryl know when that was?

After what feels like an eternity Aaron and Paul return.

“That was surprisingly enjoyable,” Paul says, “You were right about Ezekiel being a character. Are he and your former groundskeeper a thing?”

“I…I don’t know, actually,” Aaron says.

“Well, he definitely likes her,” Paul asserts, “So even if they’re not a thing yet they will be.”

“I hope so,” Aaron says, “Carol’s a good person, and she’s apparently had a tough life.”

“Definitely an interesting match up,” Paul murmurs, “Speaking of, you’re right about fixing Denise up with Tara. We have to make it happen somehow.”

“I know!” Aaron says, giddy with excitement.

“You need to throw a big party up here, have everyone show up, then push the lesbians together and let nature take its course,” Paul says.

Daryl smiles, remembering Tara’s excited gushing about Aaron and Paul’s LA trip. He imagines her reaction to the scene before him: Aaron and Paul back from their unofficial date smiling and laughing at each other. He imagines it again when both men change into their PJs and sit down on the couch to watch some Christmas movies. Daryl sits in between them, studying their faces. Aaron is being completely fucking obvious, spending more time watching Paul’s reaction to their chosen movies than the screen itself.

Paul falls asleep halfway through their second movie (Elf again, Daryl gets more of the jokes this time around after more than a year of regular television watching has gotten him more up to speed on the modern world) Aaron turns the TV off, and spends a few minutes studying him. He reaches a hand out and brushes the hair off Paul’s face, tucking it behind his ear. Aaron visibly gathers himself, takes in a deep breath, then gives then gives Paul a gentle shake.

Paul wakes up with a start, looking around him in wild-eyed confusion before his eyes settle on Aaron’s face.

“Sorry,” Aaron murmurs, “I hope you weren’t finally getting a visit from Daryl.”

“Unfortunately no,” Paul says, smiling.

“Well, I’m going to go upstairs to sleep,” Aaron says, “I made up the guest room for you downstairs, but you can crash on the couch if you want. Santa might not come if you do, though.”

Paul chuckles, “I think I can stay awake long enough to go to walk downstairs. See you in the morning.”

Aaron retreats up to the loft when Paul goes downstairs. Daryl hesitates, eyes flickering between the two sets of stairs. Finally he makes a decision and drifts downstairs. Paul is passed out in bed, hair loose on the pillow. Daryl stands over him, fidgeting while he tries to remember the exact sequence of events that led to him winding up in Aaron’s dream. After a few minutes he sits down on the edge of Paul’s bed and raises his hand cautiously, hovering over the other man’s cheek. He remembers getting blasted with Paul’s memories last summer, and it takes him several long moments to butch up enough to touch the sleeping man.

Nothing happens, no matter how hard Daryl concentrates. “Fuck,” he mutters after twenty or so minutes of repeatedly laying his hands on Paul and trying for…something.

“You gotta be the one doing it,” Daryl says, “I dunno how or why, but it’s you.”

Paul doesn’t stir, and after a while Daryl drifts upstairs to check on Aaron. He feels a flash of guilt when he hears Aaron is whispering softly, describing his “date” with Paul.

“It went well,” Aaron sums up, “I think…I think when I ask him he’ll say yes. I almost asked him at dinner, but I lost my nerve.”

“Well,” Daryl grumbles, “I’ll be here if you need a kick in the ass.”

“I’m going to wait until tomorrow,” Aaron says, “Don’t go anywhere, ok? I’m going to need you to help me do this.”

“Where’d I go?” Daryl says, “I think I want this as much as you do.”

Chapter Text

Christmas morning Aaron wakes up first. He did a lot of tossing and turning during the night, his curls are rumpled and there are dark bags under his eyes. He starts coffee, and as though it summoned him Paul ambles upstairs. Predictably he looks like he spent an hour in the hair and makeup chair instead of just rolling out of bed.

“Morning,” Paul says, “You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘good morning’ since coffee is necessary for me to feel that sentiment.”

“Morning,” Aaron says, lips twitching, “Christmas. Possibly good and merry, but like you I need coffee first.”

Paul grins, and Aaron fixes him a cup and asks if he wants breakfast. When Paul makes an affirmative noise after his first sip of coffee Aaron starts preparing breakfast. Paul sits at the table, gazing out the picture windows into Daryl’s valley. It snowed more last night, everything is powdery and white.

“Do you have a sled?” Paul asks.

“No, since I’m not ten years old,” Aaron says, loading Paul’s plate with food. It’s nothing fancy, a bit of bacon and French toast. “Real maple syrup,” he says, placing a glass bottle on the table.

“I just like butter and a little powdered sugar on mine,” Paul says.

“Freak,” Aaron says, drowning his own toast in syrup,“Santa came last night, by the way. “We can open presents then go out for a hike.”

“Santa’s poor elf also came,” Paul says.

“Santa has everything he could ever want and derives most of his joy through giving and being with friends.”

“Well, Santa’s poor elf is grateful to be one of those friends.”

“So am I,” Aaron says, “Grateful you’re my friend, I mean.”

Paul’s cheeks color and he looks out the window with a pleased little smile. Aaron goes tense, and for a second Daryl thinks this is it, he has the perfect opening to say something from one of his speeches that he practiced days ago. Instead he turns his attention back to his plate, mopping up the leftover syrup with a bit of bacon.

They open presents after breakfast. Daryl knew Aaron had fretted over what to buy, not wanting to go overboard so he came across as too eager while at the same time wanting to shower the guy he loved with gifts. He settled on two cashmere sweaters, one a soft shade of green and the other dark gray; a beard grooming kit he’d ordered off the internet for over two hundred bucks, a pair of socks with a pattern of Jesus riding a t-rex, and a fuckload of books, almost all of them with a little “advanced reader copy” label on the cover. 

“Holy fuck,” Paul says, pouring over the last with excitement.

“I didn’t know if you had any of these through work,” Aaron says, “So I just grabbed everything I thought you’d like.”

Paul’s gifts are simpler but no less thoughtful. A book, of course—green with a cover that has a silhouette drawing of several figures in a mysterious wooded valley called Tales by Moonlight.

“One of the earliest collections of Appalachian folklore,” Paul says, “I asked our librarian to help me pick it out. Lots of ghost stories.”

He also got Aaron a mug that reads, “you are dangerously close to being killed in my novel” and screen print of an RV in the middle of the desert with a plume of smoke rising out and the words “WE NEED TO COOK” at the bottom.

Both men are ridiculously pleased with their gifts, Aaron in particular. “Santa’s poor elf did a better job at the gift giving.”

“Santa’s poor elf spent less than a hundred bucks,” Paul says, the tips of his ears turning pink.

“Santa’s poor elf gave more thoughtful gifts,” Aaron argues.

“Santa’s ghostly friend is sick of this shit,” Daryl interjects, “Fucking kiss him already.”

Paul flinches, blinking at Aaron, who is paging through the book the other man gave him.

“What?” Aaron asks, looking up.

“Nothing,” Paul says, then, “Come on, let’s get dressed and go outside.”

*******************************************

Like the previous afternoon Paul and Aaron don’t go very far on their hike, much to Daryl’s relief. Both men are careful and leave messages about where they’re going and when they intend to be back, their magic phones work out here, and they stick to easy trails and paths through the woods. Daryl still flutters behind them anxiously, especially when it starts to snow again. Thankfully they head back toward the cabin before too long. Neither man wants to go back inside so they within sight of the cabin. They try to build a snow man but the snow is too wet and doesn’t pack well. They end up with a deranged pile of snow that they stick twigs in to at least attempt to get something resembling the traditional snow man.

“It kinda looks like Cthulu,” Paul says, “Should we knock it down so we don’t risk summoning an elder god?”

“Nah, knowing Lovecraft the most evil thing an elder god would do is encourage miscegenation,” Aaron says, “Might to be have fun to have for tea.”

“Good point,” Paul says.

The two men are red nosed and rosy cheeked when they finally come inside. They change into dry clothes and watch more Christmas movies until dinner. Afterward they sit at the table just chatting for over an hour before Aaron asks if Paul wants to watch more Christmas movies.

“Nah,” Paul says, “We watched the ones I care about. What time is it? Eight? Let’s count Christmas over four hours early and do something unrelated.”

“I’ve got the ping-pong table set up if you want to play a match. Winner does the dishes.”

“Why don’t you just save yourself the humiliation and get started now?” Paul says, one eyebrow raised.

“Why don’t you go fuck yourself?”

A few minutes later Paul isn’t just beating Aaron at ping pong, he’s humiliating him with casual ease. Paul is freakishly quick, his paddle there no matter how hard Aaron hits the ball.

“I feel like we should’ve bet something beyond the dishes,” Paul says, “I could’ve gotten more out of it.”

“Fuck you, you fucking fuck,” Aaron says.

“Although,” Paul says thoughtfully, “That’s just mean of me, after all. You’re doing your best, I’m sure.”

“Fucker,” Daryl mutters. The next time Paul drops the ball for a serve Daryl reaches out and helps it along, lifting it up faster so that Paul misses it when he swings at it. The expression on his face makes Daryl laugh; he looks just like the bobcat did ages ago when it pounced at his ghostly fingers. After that Daryl makes it a point to fuck with the ball whenever he can, and Paul gets pissed.

“You cheated somehow,” Paul mutters.

Somebody’s a sore loser,” Aaron says loftily, “Don’t worry, I’ll dry the dishes when you’re done with them.”

“Like fuck you will,” Paul says, “One more game.”

“Nah,” Aaron says, tossing the ball thoughtfully, “We’re done.”

“My ass,” Paul says, “Give me the ball.”

Aaron holds the ball high over his head, “Sorry, pal. Accept it.”

“I’m not accepting shit,” Paul says, “Also, is that supposed to be a challenge?” He gestures at the ball over Aaron’s head.

Aaron wiggles the ball a little, “What’s that, Jesus? The ball can’t hear you from all the way down there.”

“Ok, that was definitely a challenge,” Paul says, then lunges for him. Aaron dodges him and races for the stairs. Paul catches him easily, doing this kung fu move that ends with Aaron on his ass and the ball in Paul’s hand. He tosses it in the air and catches it, grinning down at Aaron.

“One more match,” Paul says, eyes narrowed.

“You are a sore loser,” Aaron says from his spot on the floor, face flushed and stretched in a grin, “How could I have possibly cheated?”

Paul studies the ball thoughtfully, rolling it in his hands, “I don’t know.”

“Maybe the ghost did it,” Aaron says.

“Ghost definitely did it,” Daryl snorts, “He needed to be taken down a peg.”

“I forfeit,” Aaron says, “Compromise, we’ll both do the dishes together.”

“I don’t need your pity win,” Paul says, eyes sparkling as he helps Aaron to his feet and claps him on the shoulder, “You really need to let me teach you a few moves. Especially if you’re alone up here with only a ghost for protection.”

“I’d like that,” Aaron says. Daryl doesn’t think either man intended that exchange to be as tinged with innuendo as it is; and they both look away from each other, flustered.

“I could use a glass of water,” Paul says after a few awkward moments of silence.

“Me too,” Aaron says, “Wait here, I’ll be back and we can go for round two.”

When he leaves Paul’s face changes into something Daryl can’t tell is sadness or fear.

“Y’alright?” Daryl asks him.

Paul sighs and rakes his hand through his hair, “Don’t be an idiot, Rovia.”

“You are an idiot,” Daryl mutters, “Don’t matter none what you tell yourself.”

Paul wanders over to the bookshelves lining the walls of the rec room, fingers brushing lightly over the copies of Vengeance for the Plunderers. Then he goes to sit on the small couch across from the ping pong table, slouching down on the cushions, face unreadable.

Daryl sits on the coffee table across from him, trying to puzzle out his expression. Before he can Aaron is returning with a glass of water in each hand.

“Thank you,” Paul says, taking a deep drink from his glass and not meeting Aaron’s eyes.

“You ok, pal?” Aaron asks with a frown.

Paul smiles, “Just trying to figure out how you cheated.”

Aaron laughs, “You are a sore loser.”

“I just know when I’m being fucked with,” Paul says. Aaron grins at him, eyes shining. Paul raises his eyebrows, “What?”

“Nothing,” Aaron says, “I’m just really glad you’re here, even if you suck at ping pong then get pissy because you lose”

“So am I,” Paul replies, “Even if you’re a fucking cheater.” Despite his words the smile he gives Aaron is soft and sweet.

Just like that the entire atmosphere of the room changes, as fast and sudden as a tossed in grenade. Aaron’s smile slowly fades the longer he stares at Paul’s face. Their eyes are locked until Paul’s dart down to Aaron’s lips so fast Daryl would have missed it if he weren’t so transfixed. Aaron definitely doesn’t miss it. He goes still and his breath picks up. He swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing up and down.

Daryl sees that Paul’s muscles are rigid with tension and the ice in his water glass make a gentle tinkling sound as he starts trembling. He’s breathing harder too, in a way that suggests he’s giving everything to stay in control. Daryl’s seen things like this in movies and really isn’t prepared to witness in real life between two guys he…between Aaron and Paul.

Aaron twists to his side, leaning over Paul and bracing himself with one hand on the back of the couch just next to Paul’s face. Without breaking eye contact for even a second he reaches out with his other hand and plucks the glass from Paul’s unresisting fingers then carefully places it on the coffee table right next to where Daryl is sitting. Then he lays the same hand gently on Paul’s cheek, tilting his face up. As Daryl watches Paul puts a shaking hand on Aaron’s waist. Daryl can see there’s sweat at his hairline and his pupils are large and black. When Aaron kisses him at last Paul inhales sharply and closes his eyes. It’s a soft kiss, and Daryl feels his own lips tingle, maybe with the memory of when Aaron kissed him all those years ago. Same gentle press, incredibly brief.

Only instead of pulling back Aaron hovers with his mouth only a few inches from Paul’s, lips parted before he does it again. He watches Aaron’s hand on Paul’s cheek, the thumb tracing his cheekbones and sliding over all the way down to his lower lip. Daryl feels more than a tingle, he feels his entire lower lip burn. Heat spreads out through him, filling him up and his thoughts scatter in a hundred different directions. He feels like a fish hook is lodged somewhere in his insides, jerking him forward to better see what the two men are doing. He’s hovering just over Aaron’s shoulder and wildly thinks, I, I should leave.

Before he can Paul presses forward, not quite kissing Aaron, just brushing their parted lips together. He feels that jerk again, like a dog running at the end of its leash and being tugged back. Daryl sees the fingers on the hand Aaron is using to support himself on the back of the couch clench into a fist. Aaron surges forward then, hand moving from Paul’s cheek to the back of his head. Daryl feels a shivery and painful but pleasurable feeling on his scalp as Aaron tightens his fingers in Paul’s hair. Aaron’s mouth opens and Daryl sees a hint of tongue and again when Paul opens his own mouth.

I need to leave, Daryl thinks again as their kissing becomes more aggressive, forceful. Daryl can hear it, the slick noises of their mouths moving against each other, hear the sharp dual gasps as they briefly break apart for a breath before diving back in. Hears a muffled moan from Paul. Aaron surges forward again with surprising assurance from a man who for months hasn’t been able to spit out how he feels. He takes Paul in his arms and twists them around, repositioning them so Paul is flat on his back and Aaron is pressed down on top of him, chest to chest. Paul’s arms slide around Aaron’s shoulders, one moving to his hair and gripping the other man’s curls.

Aaron shifts again, hooking one hand under Paul’s knee and raising it so he can settle in between his legs. Paul arcs his hips and Aaron moans, then breaks away to kiss Paul’s neck. Rough beard against sensitive skin and Daryl makes an entirely involuntary noise.

“Aaron,” Paul pants, “Aaron, what are you doing?”

“Something I’ve wanted to do for months,” Aaron growls, and that fish hook jerks Daryl’s guts again. He can’t believe Aaron can make a noise like that, voice deep and a little feral and when Aaron kisses Paul on the mouth again Daryl thinks he’s going to just…vaporize. Vanish in a puff of smoke.

They’ve only been kissing a minute or two.

Aaron slides his hand up Paul’s thigh to hips, over his stomach and chest, pausing to rub his thumb over Paul’s nipple before he reaches the top button of his shirt. After a bit of fumbling Aaron undoes it and breaks away from Paul’s mouth again to kiss the hollow of his throat. Hot breath and wet mouth and a hint of teeth before he returns to Paul’s lips. His hand is still on Paul’s shirt and he undoes a second button, then a third. Slides the shirt apart just enough for the first few letters of Paul’s tattoo to be visible, Aaron traces the “s” with one finger before leaning in to lick a long stripe over his collar bone.

When it comes it’s just as fast as the feeling that precipitated the change from two friends laughing on the couch to this frantic kissing. One second Daryl is barely able to form coherent thoughts over the rising tension and heat that’s taken him over, the next he’s hit with a cold flash of clarity. At the same time Paul puts his hands against Aaron’s chest and shoves, pushing him up and off of him.

It’s unnecessary, as soon as Paul starts pulling away Aaron’s hands fly off him and he jumps back saying, “Sorry! Sorry! Too fast? Sorry.” He’s out of breath and there are hectic patches of color on his cheeks, curls askew from Paul’s frantic clutching.

Paul moves to the edge of the couch, putting as much distance between him and Aaron as possible. He’s in a similar state, gasping for air with swollen red lips. His hands are shaking and he won’t meet Aaron’s eyes as he buttons up his shirt. “What,” he says, voice high, “What was that?”

Aaron stares at him, looking bewildered, “Uh…my best?” Paul looks at him then for a moment, eyes wide and disbelieving, “Shit. Sorry, I don’t, I’m a little. Fuck, this isn’t how I planned this. I was going to talk to you first—“

“‘Planned’?” Paul says, “Planned what?”

Aaron turns an even brighter shade of red drops his own eyes, “That sounds…I mean, I wasn’t being calculating or…dishonest. I wanted to spend Christmas with and if things well and I had a good moment then I’d ask you…uh…I mean…” he trails off in a wordless stammer.

“I can’t believe you fucking write books for a living,” Daryl snaps. He’s having a hard time concentrating and stringing thoughts together himself, feels dazed and off kilter and convinced he still has skin that feels too hot.

“Ask me what?” Paul says. Aaron’s still not looking at him so he doesn’t see the flash of pure terror in his eyes when he says that.

Aaron takes in a deep breath and forces himself to look at Paul, who has gotten control over his face, “We’ve been spending a lot of time together. It’s been good, and I thought…” he takes in another breath, “I wanted…I think we should give it a try. You and me. Like, dating.”

“You were planning on asking me out on a date,” Paul says flatly.

“No, I was planning…fuck, Paul. We’ve known each other for so long, we’ve gone out on dates before but we weren’t calling it that. I want…I mean, dates are good, official ones. But. I want to try the whole…relationship thing. With you.”

“You’ve won awards,” Daryl snarls.

Unbelievably, Paul laughs at that, “Oh come on, Aaron. Trust me, you don’t want that with me. We all know I’m a disaster at them. Especially when it comes to non-assholes. We’re better as friends, trust me. If you’re ready to start dating I know a few guys who might be interested in helping you get back on the horse.”

Aaron stares at him in disbelief and mortification, “I don’t want to start dating, I want to start dating you, specifically. It’s…if you don’t feel the same it’s fine.”

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” Paul says, still smiling a smile that doesn’t touch his eyes. Daryl sees that one of Paul’s hands is clenched into a fist.

Aaron’s face twists, “Is this because…I mean, because you’re seeing Alex again?”

Paul’s fake smile fades and is replaced by genuine confusion, “What the hell are you talking about? I’m not seeing Alex. I told you, that’s done with, thank god.”

“I called you a few months ago,” Aaron says, “He answered your phone, said you were in the shower.”

Paul’s confused expression clears, “Oh. We hooked  up after I ran into him when I got back from L.A. It was a one off, I hit it then quit it without listening to him asking to try giving this another go. Which I call growth.”

“I don’t anything to do with Fu—with Alex growth.”

“It’s hilarious to me that you all think I don’t know that everyone calls him ‘Fucking Alex’. You’ve only been doing it from the first week I met him.”

“Well, that’s because it’s impossible to say his name without getting pissed off. Why do you keep…why him?”

“He’s hot, and he knows how to fuck,” Paul says, blunt, “Good for a night, but I can’t believe I used to inflict him on you guys. Or tried to have a relationship with him. He’s even worse at it then I am.” Paul gives Aaron another cheeky, fake smile, “Horribly bad at them, pal. Believe me when I say you don’t want to date me. But it’s good that you’ve started thinking about it.”

“I told you,” Aaron says in a tight voice, “I don’t want to start dating, I want to start dating you.”

Why?” Paul says, “If it didn’t work out it’d complicate our friendship.”

“Goddamnit Aaron stop being such a fucking pussy and tell him!” Daryl barks.

Tell me what?” Paul asks.

Daryl jerks, Paul is looking at Aaron and acting for all the world like he’s responding to something that Aaron has said. In that moment Daryl knows that regardless of what the fuck is going on with Paul Rovia almost hearing him he’s not fucking with his dead ass on purpose.

Aaron rubs the back of his neck and squeezes his eyes shut then takes in a deep breath, “I was lying. I don’t want to date you, as an experiment or…fuck, I don’t know. I’m not good at this. But our friendship is already complicated because I realized I’m in love with you. Have been for…fuck, I don’t know. At least since LA, but probably before that, I don’t know when,” he lets out a shaky little laugh, “So. There it is.”

There’s no smile fake or otherwise on Paul’s face. Instead he’s gone still and blank, wearing his cypher face that Daryl can’t make heads or tales of. He says nothing as the seconds tick by.

“Hey, pal,” Aaron says, trying for humorous and failing due to the agonized expression on his face, “I’m…I’m going to need you to say something. Even if it’s—“

“No,” Paul says.

Daryl unfortunately has a very large catalog of different expressions of devastation on Aaron’s face but the look he has now is a brand new one, “No…no what? No, you’re not interested…or…”

“I mean no, you’re not in love with me.”

Aaron looks confused and devastated all at once, “Um. I think I’d be the one to know.”

Paul’s shaking his head, “You’re not. I’m sorry, but. You’re wrong.” His tone is bland and pleasant, his “Jesus” voice.

“Bullshit,” Daryl snaps, “You ain’t seen the way he’s been mooning over you these past couple months.”

Aaron’s lips press together, “I know what being in love feels like.”

Paul’s flinch is barely perceptible, “I know you do. But I think you’re mistaking love with gratitude,” Paul says, in that bland and impersonal voice, “Look, I was there for you when you had your breakdown after Eric. Only person you could talk about some things. It makes sense for you to…project something there. It’s like…reverse Florence Nightingale syndrome.”

Aaron eyes darken, that one vein in his forehead bulges, “You don’t get to tell me what my feelings are,” he says in a harsh whisper, “even if you don’t feel the same, or find them inconvenient. I love you.”

There’s no way Aaron fails to notice Pauls flinch this time. He pushes himself up off the couch and stands, not meeting Aaron’s eyes. “Look,” Paul says, “I wish you hadn’t…I wish you had talked to me about this back home. I think…maybe I should put some distance between us. Give you a chance for this thing to go away—“

“Being in love’s not something you can turn off and on like a fucking faucet!” Aaron says, getting to his feet as well.

Paul closes his eyes and lets out a shaky breath, “Oh, I know.”

“How?” Aaron snaps, “Have you ever been in love before?”

“Only with the same guy for over ten years,” Paul replies, “So yeah. I know you can’t just turn it off no matter how much you want to.”

Aaron looks stunned, then crushed, “I…who? It can’t be…are you talking about Fucking Alex? Why him?

“He’s talking about you, you dumb fuck,” Daryl says, the heart wrenching understanding coming over him. He feels like a dumb fuck himself for not seeing it before now. Part of it is how off-kilter Paul makes him, part of it is just assuming that everybody go starry-eyed over Aaron the way he did. Daryl still thinks he would have figured this out if he’d seen Paul more than a handful of times over these past few years, and he mutters, “Dumb fuck” at Aaron for not seeing.

Paul doesn’t call Aaron a “dumb fuck”, at least not verbally, but his face when he finally meets Aaron’s manages to convey the sentiment all the same.

Daryl watches understanding and confusion flip back and forth on Aaron’s face, “Wait…me?

Paul gives him another “you dumb fuck” expression, this one tinged with sadness. He turns away and runs a hand over his face, “Yeah. Since…well, since you told me your senior year that you and Eric were planning to go to Africa to save the world and I knew I wouldn’t see you for months. Maybe never again.”

“Since senior year?” Aaron says, “You never…how could I have not known that?”

“It’s not like I went around announcing I was in love with a guy who was taken,” Paul says with a flash of irritation, “Maggie’s the only one I’ve talked to about it and that’s because she figured it out on her own. Like I said I tried everything to not feel this way.”

“I’m sorry, I’m still having trouble processing this,” Aaron says, “From what I’m understanding we’re both in love with each other, have compatible sexual orientations, are single, but you don’t want to be in a relationship, or try…why? Are you scared? I am too, but—“

“You’re not listening to me. You’re not in love with me.”

“He is too,” Daryl snaps, “You’re so…” Daryl wishes he had words, “You’re so you. How could any guy not love you if they knew you?”

“You’re not,” Paul whispers, “I know you think you are. But seriously, let’s…let’s not hang out for a bit so you can really turn this over in your head.”

Aaron looks at him, incredulous, “You think I haven’t done that already? Think that it’s not something I’ve gone over and over again? Think this is just some…airy fairy little notion I had and haven’t thought through, because I’m emotionally damaged or clueless?”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Paul says.

“How did you mean it?” Aaron says, “Why is it so hard for you to believe that I love you?”

Paul takes in a deep breath, “Well, I’m not Eric for starters. That’s the big one, and I know he wouldn’t have wanted this. If you think about you’ll see it too.”

Daryl wonders if Paul likes doing things like tossing gasoline on house fires or sticking his dick in hornet nests.

Aaron goes completely still, face flushing so dark it’s almost purple, “Oh no you don’t,” he whispers, “Don’t you dare. Eric would have wanted me to be happy. Don’t act like you knew him the way I did, or you have the first fucking clue about what he would have wanted, you know dick about—”

Daryl thinks back to two Christmas ago, Aaron lashing out and Paul responding with calm patience, never losing his cool. Daryl remembers wondering what’d take for the guy to really snap, wondering it anything could. He only came close when Aaron clumsily propositioned him, and even then it was just flashes, slips of the mask. So he’s unprepared for the way Paul’s detached, calm face goes flying off to be replaced by one of pure rage. Daryl realizes he’s never seen Paul truly angry, and finally believes some of the stories the rest of the GREATMS used to say about how he was in school. Paul pulls his lips back from his teeth into a snarl and spits out, “Fuck you for saying that to me, and fuck you even harder for this…whatever this is, inviting me up here.”

“Fuck me? Don’t use him against me because—“

FUCK. YOU!” Oh, Daryl was wrong. This is Paul truly angry, “I know he was the love of your life but he was my friend too, you know! I know it’s easy to forget because I’m a shitty friend and was never a full member of your little GREATMS club.”

Aaron’s mouth snaps shut and the color drains from his face, eyes bulging and nostrils flaring.

“Yeah, you did forget, didn’t you?” Paul says, “Fair enough, like I said I can be a shitty friend. Do you want to know how shitty? There were a lot of times when I fucking hated him.”

Daryl thinks he would gasp if he still needed to breathe, and Aaron goes white to the lips. Paul, sensing he’s hit the right button, keeps going, voice low and bitter, “Oh, it was only for a second, but that still puts me in the running for world’s biggest asshole. Who could hate Eric, even for a second? Just this asshole. Not because he got to be with you and I didn’t, I knew I couldn’t make you happy like he did; but because of his stupid fucking little emails he sent me after the rest of you graduated. Even when you were in the middle of fucking nowhere in Africa, just wanting to check in on me! I don’t think I responded once, but he just kept sending them. Not just copying me on group messages, although he did that too. It was worse when you came back, ‘Jesus, I’m down by the school if you want to grab coffee!’ ‘Jesus, Tara was talking about you the other night, it’s been too long.’ On and on and fucking on. Maggie would have forgotten me eventually, she did before, the rest of you did five minutes after graduation for the most part, but not that stupid…” Paul’s breathing hard, “So yeah, there were times when I fucking hated him for not letting me just…move on from everyone.”

“Stop him,” Daryl says suddenly, because Paul in his hurt and fear might say something unforgivable if he hasn’t already, and because Daryl knows where this is going, “Say something to him, this—“

Aaron doesn’t, just stands there staring at Paul like he’s never seen him before, and lets the guy keep talking, “Then he got fucking cancer, and he died an excruciating, ugly death. Fucking Eric, the last guy in the world who deserved to go out like that. Every time I saw him that last month I remembered every time I hated him, and I…I…I couldn’t do anything for him, or for you, and it wasn’t fucking fair. Seeing what it did to you, it was like watching you die right alongside him, and I fucking hated him for that too. For doing that to the guy I love. For not being around to send those stupid messages any more, and now it’s too late to just move on.”

Paul’s shoulders are tense, he’s in fight or flight mode, “And then after you were so…I tried to talk to you, because I knew there was finally, finally something I could do for you. Not much, but at least I could be someone who understood and you could get ugly in front of, but you shoved me away every time I tried because you didn’t even want that from me. And I came up here because I was scared the guy I loved was going to hurt himself on purpose or an accident. And do you know what the guy I love does? The only guy I’ve ever loved?”

“Paul,” Aaron rasps out, “I—“

Paul barrels past him, “He looks me dead in the eye and says we can fuck, because he doesn’t want to think anymore. That it doesn’t have to mean anything. Why the would it? It’s not like you’d be he first guy who fucked me without it meaning anything, as you pointed out. You were being generous with your half a dozen estimate, by the way.”

Aaron lets out a wordless little noise at that, “Paul, you know I didn’t mean—“

“Bullshit,” Paul snarls, “You meant it, you know you did, that’s all you saw me as, a bit of trash to use to make you feel better, no different than the whiskey you were chugging or dope you were smoking. And you stand there and expect me to believe you went from that to being in love with me? That once I’ve stopped making you feel better and you have to start dealing with my shit for once you won’t remember how you really feel deep down?”

Aaron opens his mouth but no words come out. Aaron, who as he pointed out once to Daryl makes his living with words, who typed out fucking speeches about how much he loves Paul and how good they’d be together and practiced them in front of a fucking mirror. Finally, looking as though the effort is killing him he rasps out, “It’s…it’s not like that,” and nothing else.

Paul’s anger fades from him, face slowly smoothing out and shoulders dropping from their defensive stance. He runs a weary hand over his face and says, “I think…it’s not that late. I think I’m going to go back to Atlanta tonight.”

Aaron says nothing, just stands there like an idiot while Paul goes to pack his bag. Aaron makes a half step before sinking slowly down on the couch. He looks like a boxer still reeling from a knockout punch, like he’s going to throw up. He curls the fingers of one hand into a fist and presses it against his mouth.

Daryl whips his head from Aaron’s shattered figured to the guest room where Paul has been sleeping, “Fucking stop him,” he says. Aaron of course can’t hear him, and Daryl snarls in frustration.

Tell me what, flashes through Daryl’s mind. He has no idea what the fuck is going on with Paul but he knows that the man can hear him. If Aaron can’t find words then maybe Daryl can.

*************************************************

“Fuck’s wrong with you?” Daryl snarls at Paul as he shoves his clothes into his backpack. It’s the same one he brought up all those years ago, Daryl notes. When he gets to the sweater Aaron bought him his hand shakes as he reaches out for it before pulling away. “Asshole I know you hear me sometimes!”

Paul freezes, head cocked to the side like a dog listening for his master’s voice. Looks around the room, eyes distant and far away.

“That’s bullshit, what you said in there,” Daryl continues, “He can’t see it, but I sure as hell can. You’re full of bullshit when it comes to things you don’t want to believe. You’d rather spin bullshit about…about projection or what the fuck ever. Would rather spin bullshit ‘bout your brother that you saw with your own eyes never being there because you don’t want to face that he could’ve left you and not had a choice about it. Would rather spin bullshit about your friends forgetting you or that you don’t matter. Bullshit like how he can’t love you when you know he does.”

Paul flinches, and he’s shaking when he goes back to packing. Daryl flicks the lights off, plunging the room into darkness but for the light spilling in through the open door. “Go talk to him,” Daryl snaps, “Give him chance to explain how it is without yelling at him.”

Paul doesn’t. Instead he grabs his cell phone and charger from his nightstand and heads out, leaving behind the rest of his shit like he’s fleeing from the scene of a crime. He doesn’t look over to where Aaron is still sitting on the couch useless as tits on a bull as he climbs up the steps. Daryl flicks the light on the stairway off then on, making Paul stop again. “Don’t fucking run away,” Daryl snarls at him, “That’s what you’re doing and you know it. And you know he didn’t mean them things he said to you. Things he said two years ago when he was hammered and outta his mind with grief.”

Paul just keeps going, walking out onto the main floor of the cabin and out the front door. Daryl follows close behind, berating him all the way, “Goddamnit Paul,” Daryl snarls, “Running don’t do no good, and if you do it now it’s not because of him, it’s ‘cause your scared. I know what that’s like, I died with my head bashed in and never got to…”

Paul doesn’t slow, in fact he’s practically running to his rental car, and Daryl realizes unless he does something drastic he’ll leave. He whips ahead of Paul slamming himself against the driver’s side door, and when the other man raises his key fob to unlock the it Daryl locks it again. When Paul tugs on the car door it refuses to open. He stares at the key fob, frowning, then carefully hits the unlock button.  Daryl has to time it perfectly, Paul waits just a split second to be sure the car is unlocked, he pulls on the door handle, and Daryl locks the car again. Paul swears, and any other time Daryl would laugh at him but instead he just snaps, “You ain’t going nowhere ’till you heard him out.”

Paul abandons the key fob in favor of sticking the key in the actual lock like some kind of medieval peasant. Daryl concentrates with everything he has to make it stay locked. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to make it, the locks want to open, the key is stronger than those little electronic signals sent through the air and Daryl summons every ounce of rage and sorrow he’s accumulated over the past thirty years to fight it.

There’s a snap, and Paul jerks forward, thrown off balance. He raises a stunned hand to his face and Daryl sees he’s snapped the key in half, the useless head in his hand. Paul, who has been struggling to maintain his cool ‘Jesus’ persona shouts, voice echoing across the open valley. The porch light comes on and Aaron comes out of the cabin then. When Paul sees him his face spasms and he jerks his head away to study the lock of the car door. Daryl can see his face and knows he’s on the verge of losing his cool again.

Daryl hears the crunch of Aaron’s boots against the snow and watches Paul’s shoulders tense and his breath come out in steady puffs of steam. “What’s wrong?” Aaron asks.

“Go back inside,” Paul says, not looking at him, “I got this.” He pulls his phone out, hits a button that causes a bright light to shine from the back, and raises it to peer at the scrap of metal in the door lock.

“What happened?” Aaron says, voice low.

“I broke the key in the lock,” Paul says. He kneels down in the snow in front of the car door fishes around in the breast pocket of his jacket, emerging with a slender black leather case.

“Why didn’t you use the key fob?” Aaron asks, kneeling down a careful distance away from Paul and peering at the scrap of metal stuck in the lock, “It might have frozen—“

“Don’t act like you’re an expert on auto repair,” Paul snaps, “Move.” He unzips his leather case and Daryl sees a set of long, thin metal tools. Paul studies them for a minute before fishing one out.

“Is that an actual lock pick set?” Aaron asks.

“What else would it be?” Paul replies, holding his phone in one hand and slipping the pick in the lock, trying to get it around the key, “I’ll have this out in five minutes. Go back inside.”

“Let me hold the light—“

Go back inside,” Paul snaps. His normally dexterous fingers are shaking and he’s not getting anywhere near the broken key. It’s a delicate job, getting it inserted in just right. The damn thing wants to slip out, and Daryl helps it along. The little lock pick slips out and scratches out a small, jagged line in the paint of the car door. Paul stares at it in utter disbelief before he shouts, “God fucking DAMN it!” and smashes the flat of his hand against the side of the car door in pure frustration. “Stupid piece of fucking shit fuckhead BASTARD!”

“Let me hold the light, Paul,” Aaron says in a quiet voice, “Use both hands.”

I don’t want your help, Aaron!” Paul’s still shouting, and he snaps his mouth closed. His nostrils flare as he glares at the key stuck in the lock. “This is your stupid fucking ghost’s fault.”

“Hell yeah it is,” Daryl snaps, dropping down so he’s eye level with Paul, “I don’t know why it’s like you hear me sometimes and sometimes you don’t, but you’re not leaving here till you listen to him.”

Aaron is quiet, then, “Come back inside, Paul. I’ll stay up in the loft and you can stay downstairs, you won’t have to look at me. Call a locksmith in the morning.”

“It’ll be a cold day in hell before I call a locksmith for anything.”

“Then wait until the morning comes and you can see what you’re doing. Or let me hold the light.”

Paul hasn’t looked at Aaron once. He’s shaking a little. Finally he hands Aaron his phone over his shoulder, “Don’t say anything, I need to concentrate.”

I can’t think of what to say,” Aaron whispers, lifting the phone up and shining the light on the lock. Paul pulls out a second tool from his little case and using both starts to fish it out.

“Well my redneck ass sure as fuck can think of a few things to say,” Daryl snaps, “Look, I know ‘im better than anyone by now, so trust me when I say he loves you. How could he not, when you’re so…you’re so dang nice. That’s what he said, and he said you had a lot of reasons not to be. I was a bit like you, didn’t have nobody growing up, just my asshole old man who kicked the shit out of me and my asshole older brother who got me to do shit worse’n anything you ever did. If a guy like Aaron told me he loved me…I…I wouldn’t believe him either. But here’s where you ’n me are different—you didn’t let stay bad. You didn’t use the shit that happened to you as no excuse to just…stay where you were at. You made yourself better. You let yourself love people. You’re braver than I ever was. If you go now it’s because you’re being a fucking pussy.”

Aaron’s breathing is becoming ragged and the beam of the light trembles a little. Paul stops what he’s doing for a split second. Daryl studies his face and he looks like he’s on the verge of saying something before he goes back to fishing out the broken key. The night’s very still and quiet for several long minutes as Paul works the key out a millimeter at a time. Finally he has it out enough he can grip it with his fingers and pull it out the rest of the way.

“There,” Paul says staring at the scrap of the key in his palm, “There’s a spare in the glove box. I can use that to drive back.” He makes no move to get up and be on his way, just stares into his open hand like it holds the secrets to the universe.

“Paul,” Aaron whispers in a voice that shakes, “Please don’t go. Talk to me first. Please.”

Paul closes his fingers around he broken half of the key and closes his eyes. “Ok,” he says, “How do you…how does this work?”

“How does what work?” Aaron asks, “Do you mean, tonight? Come inside, I’ll make you some coffee, we talk as much as you’ll let me—“

“No,” Paul replies, “I mean. You and me.  What does trying this to see how it works mean?”

Daryl leans forward and watches as the expression of stunned relief washes over Aaron’s face. A condemned man offered a stay of execution. “Well,” he says, swallowing with an audible click, “Step one is the same.”

Paul lets out a long, slow breath then turns to face Aaron for the first time since the other man came out. He gives a little nod and says, “Prefer hot chocolate, if you have it. I try not to have caffeine after five.”

“I think I have some,” Aaron says, “If not I’ll walk all the way into Blue Ridge if I have to.

Paul’s lips twitch, “That won’t be necessary.” He drops his eyes and hesitates. Aaron, finally deciding to butch up, gets to his feet first and offers Paul a hand.

When he takes it Daryl thinks he might explode from happiness.

Chapter Text

The first thing Paul says when Aaron places the mug of hot chocolate in front of him is, “Sorry I freaked out at you. I just—“

“Christ, don’t apologize to me,” Aaron says, “I wish you would’ve freaked out on me over some of that stuff sooner, instead acting like it didn’t matter.”

Paul stares down at his drink, “I…it shouldn’t matter. Well, not the things you said to me, at least. I know you were hammered and out of your mind with grief—“

“Paul,” Aaron interrupts, “Please don’t do that. Don’t act like you don’t matter.”

The other man takes in a deep breath, “Ok. That’s not the worst thing anyone’s ever said to me, but coming from you it was. I…I guess I’m still upset about it.”

Aaron flinches and lets out an unsteady breath, “Ok. What…what can I do? I’ve said sorry, I’ve told you that I didn’t mean it,” he squeezes his eyes shut, “I said it to piss you off enough to make you leave. Please, what can I do to make you believe that? That’s not how I felt about you then, and it sure as hell isn’t how I feel about you now.”

Daryl fights the urge to throw his own two cents in at this point. He’s resolved to stay out of this one, let Aaron and Paul work things out for themselves. “Yeah,” he says, unable to help himself, “he told me right after how much of a dick he was being. Didn’t have no reason to lie.”

Paul is quiet, rubbing a hand over his face, “I don’t know. It felt like…fuck, I don’t know. Like you’d seen through me. I kept…I kept…I kept feeling like shit, telling myself over and over again what an asshole I was.”

“Why?” Aaron says.

Paul looks at him, “I told you why.”

“Oh,” Aaron says, “Because of how you felt about Eric.”

“Yeah,” Paul says, not meeting Aaron’s eyes, “All I could think was…I mean, there was this voice in my head, ‘you must be happy, isn’t this what you wanted?’ Didn’t…it didn’t matter that it wasn’t. Like I said, I always knew…I knew even if you two broke up I couldn’t make you happy like he did. And him dying like that…”

Aaron is quiet, struggling of what to say. Finally he says, “I. Uh. I wrote speeches that I practiced before you came. Trying to figure out the best way to ask you to be my boyfriend.”

Paul gives him a look, “Dork.”

A smile flickers over Aaron’s face, “Yeah, there’s no denying it. Only one of those speeches mentioned Eric, but that one ended up in the discard pile. I didn’t…” Aaron takes in a breath, “I didn’t want you to feel like I was…I wanted it to be just about me and you. Us. But I should’ve realized no matter what there’s going to be a giant, Eric-shaped elephant in the room. Not just because of me, but because like you said he was your friend.”

Paul gives his sad smile, “Even though I was a shitty friend.”

Aaron’s face twists and he looks away, “Was that…was that your deep dark secret? That you hated Eric sometimes?”

Paul gives him a look, “Uh, it’s a pretty shitty way to feel about someone.”

“I uh, I hated him too,” Aaron whispers, “Sometimes. Especially toward the end, that last month…” Aaron breathes in, “And I know there were times in that last month he hated me.”

Paul’s eyes are wet, “Aaron, he didn’t—“

“He did. I could see it in his eyes sometimes. Because he was in pain and dying and I wasn’t. And I hated him for, uh, for some of the same reasons you did. For getting sick, for leaving me. For the times when he tried to put a brave face on things, like the entire fucking world wasn’t ending. For not…” Aaron’s eyes squeeze shut, “For not being a fucking psychic and knowing that getting heartburn after a meal meant he would die if he didn’t go to a doctor right then and start treatment.”

Paul stares at him, opening his mouth and no words coming out. Aaron waits, then gently asked, “Did you…did you ever hate your family? John?”

“That’s different,” Paul whispers.

“Why?” Aaron says, “When…when you’re hurting and there’s nothing you can do to stop it you can get ugly. Think ugly thoughts. Blame people for things that aren’t their fault. But that’s not you.”

“Doesn’t make it ok,” Paul says.

“It does make it forgivable,” Aaron says.

“Does it?” Paul asks.

“For me? Yeah,” Aaron says, “You saying you hated Eric sometimes doesn’t change how I feel about you. If you give me a chance I’m going to do absolutely everything I can to make you happy. For the rest of your life, if you’ll let me. But that won’t change the fact that there’ll be a few times where you hate me for just a second.”

“What about me?” Paul asks, “Do you hate me sometimes?”

“Not as much as when we were younger,” Aaron says, “When you fucked pieces of shit like Fucking Alex, when you took stupid risks and almost got yourself killed. I told Daryl—hey, don’t give me that look, you’re the one who told me to will him into existence—sometimes it’s hard to like someone who is as careless with one of my friends as you can be with yourself.”

Paul stares at his hands without speaking for a few moments. Finally he clears his throat and says, “Do you remember senior year, that time I jumped from the girls’ balcony to yours?”

Aaron is silent, thunderstruck, “Uh, yeah. One of the things that made me realize I l—that I have more than friendly feelings for you was I started having nightmares about that again.”

“Wait, ‘again’?” Paul says.

Aaron huffs out a noise that isn’t quite a laugh, “I had nightmares about that for years. You always missed the railing, and sometimes I’d try to catch you but I was never fast enough.”

“Oh,” Paul says, “I’m sorry. I was just…that was right after you and Eric started talking about going to Africa. I think I did it to impress you. Show off.”

“Look, no matter what happens with us,” Aaron says, “Don’t ever fucking do anything like that again to impress me. Or anyone else.”

There’s a ghost of a smile on Paul’s face, “Well, to be fair I was on coke and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was a mess that year. Part of it was the eleventh anniversary of John’s death and I realized he’d been dead longer than he was alive. Part of it was feeling like…you were all leaving. Glenn was waitlisted instead of accepted into the Master’s program at Emory and he and Maggie thought they were going to have to move to Michigan. You and Eric were going off to Africa to save the world. Rosita was going back to Texas, Sasha was thinking of moving to Chicago with her girlfriend…and there I was with two more years of school. I thought about dropping out, but…” he swallows, “then I realized that somehow I’d fallen in love with you, and I knew you’d never feel the same. I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m talking about this. Maybe…you asked me why it was so hard for me to believe that you…you…” he swallows again, “It’s hard, when you’ve spent over a decade knowing something is true in your bones to suddenly believe the opposite.”

Aaron is staring at Paul, and looks like his heart is breaking, “I understand. I…one of the reasons it took me so long to admit to myself that yeah, I want to be with you is because…well, I never thought I could love someone as much as I love Eric. That they’d always come second. So finding out I was wrong…it took me some time to wrap my head around it.”

Paul closes his eyes, breathing slowly. His fingers are clenched in a fist. After a long time he says, “Ok.”

“What,” Aaron says, “What’s ok?”

“I think I’m going to spend the night here,” Paul says slowly, “and go back to Atlanta tomorrow.”

Aaron looks completely crushed, and as Daryl watches tries to compose himself. Before he can Paul sees his expression and says, “This…this isn’t me saying ‘no’. I’m not…” he takes in a breath, “I need to think about it. Talk it out with my shrink, and maybe Maggie.”

“Maggie’s biased,” Daryl rasps, agitated, “Talk to Glenn, his opinions are the right ones on this.”

“I’m not going to leave you in suspense,” Paul says, “Can you…can you give me a week? Just to turn it over in my head?”

“Yes. Yes, a week is fine. Take more than a week, even.”

“A week,” Paul says firmly. He rubs a hand over his face, “I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. I need to sleep.”

“Would you…” Aaron says, then shakes his head, “No, sorry.”

“What?” Paul asks.

“I was going to ask if you’d sleep up in the loft with me,” Aaron says, “Not…I mean, just sleep. Nothing else, I’d take the floor. But that’s a bad idea, just promise me to wake me up before you go.”

Paul hesitates, then, “Is the offer open? I won’t even make you take the floor. But if you think it’s a bad idea—“

“Yes! I mean, yes, the offer is open. I don’t have a problem, just overthinking things.”

*******************************************

Paul and Aaron lay a careful distance from each other. The bed is big, big enough for Daryl to fit in between the two men. All three of them stretch out on their backs, staring up at the ceiling. Daryl obviously doesn’t sleep, but neither do Aaron or Paul, not for a long time. Daryl waits for them to say something but they’re both quiet. Finally Paul’s breathing evens out into sleep.

Aaron rolls over onto his side, eyes on Paul’s face. Since Daryl is between them he can almost pretend that Aaron is looking at him; at least until seeing those soft blue eyes filled with love is too much. Daryl rolls on his own side so he’s facing Paul as well. Studies his face, lips parted and breathing slowly in and out. One of his hands is curled up by his face, and without expecting much Daryl tangles their fingers together. He closes his eyes, hoping that when he opens them he’s in one of Paul’s dreams.

A futile hope; when he opens his eyes he’s still in the dark room. At his back Aaron shifts, laying on hand on where Daryl’s hip would be if he had an actual body. Gradually his breathing evens out too, leaving Daryl the only one awake. Eventually he closes his own eyes. He doesn’t sleep but the sound of both men’s steady breathing and occasional sleep mumbling is soothing. He squeezes Paul’s hand, mentally willing the other man to stay, to say yes, to stop being a stubborn son of a bitch and accept that Aaron does love him.

During the night the two living men shift in their sleep, rolling closer to each instinctually but never quite touching, as though Daryl is providing a physical barrier. The hours stretch on until the room begins to lighten, first a grey twilight then soft early morning sunshine. Daryl is still holding Paul’s hand when Aaron wakes up first again, blinking in confusion when he sees the other man’s sleeping form. He reaches his hand out and places it over Daryl and Paul’s intwined fingers, running his thumb over Paul’s knuckles. After a few minutes Aaron sighs and goes downstairs to make breakfast.

*******************************************

Aaron and Paul eat together in silence. Paul takes the time to actually pack his bag, taking his presents this time around. Aaron walks him to his rental car, Daryl drifting after them both.

“A week, right?” Aaron says after the two men stand in awkward silence.

“A week,” Paul confirms.

Aaron nods, kicking at the snow a little, “Will you text me when you get home? So I know that you made it?”

“Of course, dad,” Paul says, lips twitching. He hesitates a moment longer, hands sliding into the pockets of his jacket. A confused expression knots his brows; and when he pulls his hand out inside it is the broken car key. He turns it over in his hands a few times, a real smile stretching across his face. He hands the key to Aaron, “Here. Souvenir of your ghost’s shenanigans.”

Aaron laughs and curls his fingers around the key. “He likes you, I think.”

“I do,” Daryl says, “Even if you can be an asshole. I hope…I hope you come back.”

“I’m glad he approves,” Paul says, “After all he has dibs on you, if he doesn’t want to share he can make my life difficult.”

“See, that’s what I’m talking about,” Daryl mutters, but he’s smiling a little.

“Well,” Aaron says in an unsteady voice, “I hope he has a reason to share.”

Paul drops his eyes, “A week.”

“Ok,” Aaron says, swallowing, “No matter what you decide…I love you. I hope you can believe that.”

Paul sucks in a breath, “I’ll text you when I get home.”

Then he’s climbing into the car. Aaron and Daryl both watch him drive off, the former wrapping his arms around himself and shivering in the cold morning air. When Paul’s car is gone Aaron despondently wanders back to the cabin. Daryl stays where he is, until he feels Paul pass out of the boundary of his range.

*******************************************

Aaron spends the next two days brooding with Daryl right alongside him. He calls the Rhees to give perfunctory Christmas greetings—Daryl thinks Glenn knows something is up but Aaron doesn’t say anything. He also doesn’t say much when Sasha sends a cautious text, How did it go?

Less than ideal. I’ll talk to you about it later.

:( Ok. Let me know if you need anything.

He tries to write a few times but that’s a lost fucking cause. Instead he goes over the photos from the LA trip yet again, reviews the speeches he wrote Paul, and goes out in the cold to chop more firewood than he could possibly need. He often does the first two activities with the broken car key in one hand, thumb tracing over the jagged teeth and twisting it around over and over again.

“Fuck, Daryl,” Aaron says at one point, “I fucked it all up. Fucked it up years before I knew I wanted it. That takes skill.”

He’ll come back,” Daryl says with a confidence he doesn’t feel. He wonders what he would’ve done in Paul’s place.

“Thank you for stopping him,” Aaron continues, “Thanks for giving me a chance.”

“I shoulda fucked his engine up bad enough that he couldn’t drive away,” Daryl mutters.

Later that evening Daryl is brooding in silence next to Aaron when he feels someone enter his haunt.

Not just someone. There’s only one person who streaks across his haunt like a comet, who Daryl feels this strong as soon as he enters the boundary of his range.

“Aaron!” Daryl says, grinning and hardly daring to believe it, “Aaron. He’s here, he’s come back.”

Aaron continues brooding. He has the broken key in his hand again and is staring at it with sad eyes. Daryl makes an exasperated noise before he gets up and goes outside, that bright feeling of Paul Rovia traveling through his haunt never stronger.

Paul is in the same rental car when he pulls into the drive. Daryl hovers by the driver’s side window, beaming down at him. He sits with his hands on the steering wheel for several long moments before closing his eyes, taking in a breath, and climbing out of the car.

“Fuck yeah, man,” Daryl crows, “Knew you’d come back.”

Paul hesitates, looking around him with a frown.

“I’m too glad you’re back to wonder about your bullshit,” Daryl says, grinning, “Go put him out of his misery, he’s been a mess since you left.”

Paul frowns again then gives his head a shake. He starts toward the door, and before he can cross the porch Aaron is opening it.

The two men stare at each other, breath coming out in plumes of smoke in the chilly air. No description Daryl Dixon could come up with does justice to the expression of terrified delight on Aaron’s face as he looks at Paul Rovia.

“Hi,” Paul says.

“Hi,” Aaron replies.

“It’s. Um. It’s kinda cold out here,” Paul says.

“Oh,” Aaron says, “Right.” He steps aside so that Paul can come in. Paul is shaking a little but Daryl knows it’s not from the cold.

Daryl is hit with a sense of deja vu—was it only…four days ago? Five? That Paul was showing up for Christmas Eve? Exactly like that day Paul kicks the snow off his boots before stepping out of them and letting Aaron take his coat to hang. Like that day Paul wanders over to the big picture windows to study Daryl’s valley. It’s covered in gloomy twilight, not the pinks and purples of afternoon sunshine. Like that day Daryl stares at his face until Aaron returns from hanging Paul’s coat, standing a few feet away in silence. This time he doesn’t try to hide how hard he’s staring at Paul, however.

“I thought you said you needed a week,” Aaron says finally.

Paul turns toward him and raises one eyebrow, “I can always go and come back.”

“No!” Aaron says quickly, “I mean…I just…” He smiles then, disbelieving and hopeful, “I’m just happy you didn’t wait.”

Paul smiles back, “Well, I didn’t want to wait. I. Um,” his smile fades and he has to look away, “I talked it out with my shrink, a lot of things. She said so long as we take it slow and communicate this…there’s no reason this can’t work. Also told me I’m not a mind reader and it’s disrespectful to assume I know what your feelings are better than you do, or to project my own insecurities onto you.”

With every word Aaron’s face just gets brighter and brighter, “Sounds like a smart lady.”

Paul looks away, cheeks pink, “I also…I talked to Hershel. The elder, I mean. He…he talked to me about Maggie’s mom, getting remarried to Anette…it made me think. So. This is me saying yes, I want to try this. With you. If you still do. I’m sorry I didn’t call, I just got in the car and started driving and wasn’t sure if I’d come all the way, I almost turned around half a dozen times—“

Aaron doesn’t wait for him to finish, “I don’t care, you can show up unannounced whenever you want. And of course I still want to be with you.”

Paul raises his eyes and stares steadily at Aaron, “I need you to be sure. I can’t…if you think there’s the slightest chance that you’ll wake up one day and think this is a mistake—“

“Even if this doesn’t work out I can’t imagine thinking you could be a mistake.”

“Just…just so we’re clear,” Paul says, taking in a deep breath, “I’ve been told I’m not an easy guy to love. So. Full disclosure: I can be bad about telling people how I feel. I pretend so hard sometimes that some things don’t matter to me that I start believing my own bullshit. I can get a little morbid sometimes. Distant, I’ll just dodge and avoid something rather than face it head on.”

“Ok,” Aaron says, “I sort of knew all that already.”

“I know, it’s just…you knew that as a friend.”

“Fair enough. For the record I’m a massive nerd and can be so oblivious that it takes me close to a year to realize I’ve fallen in love with my best friend, I can put my foot in my mouth, I can lash out and say horrible things to people that love me, and my other best friend is a ghost I may have made up.”

“Two best friends?” Jesus says.

“Three, Glenn is also my best friend,” Aaron replies.

“I think you’re stretching the definition of best friend.”

“I think we’re getting off the subject,” Aaron says, smiling big and hopeful, “So this is yes?”

Paul looks uncharacteristically shy but pleased, “This is yes.”

“Ok. Good. That’s…this is good. Really good.”

Paul laughs, “No wonder you’re a writer, with your way with words.”

“I’m too happy to be articulate. Can I kiss you now? Please? Unless that’s too fast.”

“No, kissing is not too fast.”

Aaron stands there smiling his goofy smile for a beat before crossing the distance between them. He stands in front of Paul, still grinning, cheeks pink and biting his lips. Paul smirks up at him, “Are you just going to stand th—“

Paul’s smartass reply is cut off by Aaron grabbing him by the upper arm and pulling him in for a kiss. There’s an awkward moment where neither man can figure out where to put their hands before Aaron bends down and wraps his arms tightly around Paul’s waist while the other man’s arms go around his neck. Daryl feels searing bolt of electricity through him as Aaron slides a hand beneath Paul’s shirt and up his back. Paul lets out a muffled groan and Daryl sees his fingers clench in Aaron’s hair. Daryl feels a bright flash where is midsection should be, like a firework going off and showering him with sparks.

The two men break away from each other’s lips, gasping. Aaron kisses the corner of Paul’s mouth, then again, before pressing their foreheads together.

“Wow,” Paul whispers.

“No shit,” Daryl rasps. If he had knees they’d be buckling right now, just watching them.

Aaron huffs out a laugh, “Ok, I really want to keep doing this, and believe me this isn’t a knock on your height but this is sort of killing my back—“

Paul laughs too, “My neck too, you’re too damn tall.”

“Couch?” Aaron says, “Or…um…upstairs?”

“Sex is probably too fast,” Paul gasps.

“Probably,” Aaron says.

“Kissing is ok, though,” Paul says, still gasping.

“Very ok,” Aaron agrees, “Couch?”

“Couch,” Paul says.

The two men untangle from one another just enough to stagger over to the couch in front of the fireplace. Daryl feels that tugging feeling in his guts and drifts after them automatically before forcing himself to stop.

I need to leave, give them some privacy—

“Oh god,” spills out of Daryl’s mouth and he feels his entire spirit shimmer—he has no other word for it, like a how the world bends and twist on a hot day only he’s the one doing it—as Aaron slings Paul down on the couch. Daryl is standing behind the couch, the back blocking the two men from his view, and he hears the slick sounds of their mouths moving against each other.

A shiver of pleasure arcs up from Daryl’s stomach to his chest. He sees Aaron emerge, just his head and shoulders. Aaron tugs his shirt off over his head and vanishes from view again. More wet noises, soft gasps, and heavy breathing.

“We need to stop,” Aaron groans.

“We do,” Paul says.

After a beat the wet noises and heavy breathing resumes, getting louder. Daryl hears the jingle of metal against metal—he assumes a belt being undone, followed by the purr of a zipper.

“Fuck,” Aaron groans. Daryl’s hand is burning, he feels lightheaded and that tug in his guts. There’s the sound of heavy breathing punctuated by Aaron gasping out the occasional, “oh” and “yes” and “fuck.”

Aaron growls, and Daryl hears Paul cry out at the same time there’s a loud thump against the couch. Daryl’s fists clench and it takes everything to have to fight that pull in his guts. Aaron’s head and shoulders emerge again, lips parted and red, curls disheveled. There’s another purr of a zipper and Daryl sees Paul’s legs flash up as Aaron tugs off his pants before diving back in.

After that Daryl can’t fight that pull in his guts that drags him over to the couch. He’s able to slam to a halt when the back of the couch hits his chest, and when he looks down the sight is enough to make him shimmer again. Aaron is almost completely naked, shirt discarded on the floor, his pants shoved down mid thigh to reveal his bare ass. Daryl wants to grab it and squeeze. Beneath him Paul’s pants are off and his legs are wrapped around Aaron’s waist, ankles digging into the flexing muscles of his butt. Paul’s shirt is unbuttoned and his hands are roaming all over Aaron’s back and thighs as they rock together faster and faster. Daryl watches Aaron pushes himself up and off Paul, sliding down to the floor by the couch and leaning over Paul’s bare body, dragging his mouth from the tattoo on Paul’s chest downward.

Daryl squeezes his eyes shut.

I need to leave. I need to leave, Daryl thinks, but before he can finds himself crying out, “Aaron!” at the same time Paul does. His eyes fly open and he sees Paul sprawled out naked on the couch, Aaron kneeling on the floor and bent over his lap. One of Paul’s hands is clutching Aaron’s hair, the other is stretched out behind him gripping the arm of the couch. Daryl stares wide-eyed as Aaron’s head bobs up and down, watches as he stretches one hand up to thumb Paul’s nipples.

Daryl squeezes his eyes shut again and forces himself to drop down behind the couch. He feels that tension grow, feels himself shimmer in and out, hears Paul groan out Aaron’s name a final time, then…

“Fuck,” Daryl says, blinking up at the ceiling as blissful relief washes over him. Distantly he registers the sound of Aaron groaning out Paul’s name, then a shout. After that it’s quiet except for the sound of the two living men panting on the other side of the couch. Gradually both of their breathing slows to normal, and Daryl hears a few wet smacks as they kiss.

“Sorry,” Aaron rasps after several long minutes.

“I’m…I’m wondering what on earth you could possibly be apologizing for,” Paul says, his voice sounding thick and drugged.

“You said sex was too fast,” Aaron says.

Probably too fast,” Paul says in that dreamy voice.

“Oh,” Aaron says, “So this was ok?”

“‘Ok’?” Paul huffs, “Yeah, pal. It was ok.”

“Glad to hear it,” Aaron says, a smile in his voice.

The two men are quiet again, for so long Daryl starts wondering if they’ve fallen asleep, when Paul speaks. He sounds half-asleep, so Daryl wasn’t that far off the mark. “What about the ghost?”

“Hmmm?” Aaron says, sounding more than half asleep.

“Daryl,” Paul says, “Do you think he minds?”

“No,” Aaron answers, “told you, he likes you.”

“Do you think he watched?” Paul asks.

Daryl feels a jolt of mortification and guilt. “Sorry,” he rasps out, “I tried not to…I just…” His excuses sound hollow now that he’s laying in a heap behind the couch and no longer feeling that maddening pull.

“He said he doesn’t watch private stuff,” Aaron murmurs, “And I thought you don’t believe he’s really here.”

“Mmmm. Well, If I’m wrong and he watched I don’t mind.”

Aaron gives a sleepy chuckle, “Never pegged you as an exhibitionist.”

“I’m not, I make an exception for your sexy dream ghost best friend. If he wants to watch he can.”

“Fuck off,” Daryl grumbles, “I’m going to my grave next time. Whenever that is."

Next time turns out to be about an hour later. The fire dies down and the two men, who have been drowsing, pick themselves up and head toward the loft. Daryl thinks they're just going to sleep until he feels the tension growing in him, feels a pull dragging him up the stairs after them. He manages to stop halfway up the stairs, and not long after he hears the noises that are starting to become familiar as the two men move together. 

"Jesus fucking Christ," Daryl grits out, clinging to one of the steps for dear life as the whole thing starts all over again. 

Chapter Text

Daryl is sitting on the bottom step beneath the sleeping loft with his fists and jaw clenched. Above him he can hear Paul gasp, then a moaned, “Yes, Aaron…”

Paul has been at the cabin for a week, and in that week Daryl has learned that “taking it slow” apparently means “fucking constantly.” When they wake up in the morning. When they go to sleep at night. In the shower. On the couch. Over the kitchen table. In front of the fireplace. Daryl has to force himself to leave whenever he catches them giving each other certain looks because if he doesn’t hightail it before they start going at it he can’t. No matter how hard he tries he can only go so far, this time it was all he could do to drag himself down the stairs away from the bed when their sleepy kisses started turning dirtier and more intense.

Above him Daryl hears a thump and then the steady creaking of the bed punctuated by a lot of moaning from both men as well as the sound of flesh hitting flesh. As they get louder and louder Daryl wishes he could make himself leave, that he weren’t such a fucking pervert who’s rooted to the spot as tension builds through him. He picks at the corner of his nails, and if he were still alive they’d already be bloody. Despite Paul’s joke of not minding if he watches Daryl is trying not to be too fucking creepy. He hasn’t watched the two of them together since that first time, even when he finds himself dragged in close he keeps his eyes firmly averted. He knows Paul doesn’t really believe he’s there, if he did he might feel different about Daryl watching.

Daryl wishes he could just fucking jack off if he has to stay, but that’s something ghosts can’t do and it’s not fair how badly he wants to. Especially as things reach their conclusion and Aaron starts talking. Aaron talks a lot when they fuck, it’s the sort of stuff that should sound cheesy and sleazy outside of his porn videos but makes Daryl’s toes curl all the same. His voice goes low and feral in a way that is at odds with the mild, sweet-natured and occasionally goofy nerd Daryl knows. Right now Aaron is asking Paul over and over again if he likes it; as if the noises Paul is making aren’t enough for people several states over to figure out just how much he likes whatever is being done to him.

A final chorus of shouts, slap of skin, and another, then it’s mercifully over. Daryl feels the tension drain out of him to be replaced by a wave of relief. He stretches out on the steps and waits. Before long he hears footsteps on the stairs and he forces himself to turn away as Aaron walks past him, naked and whistling. Part of the routine, one Daryl has become familiar with. Aaron doesn’t deviate from it, he heads to the bathroom on the main floor to grab a few wash cloths then stops at the fridge for a snack on his way back upstairs. Daryl gives them a few minutes before he drifts up after him.

They’ve finished cleanup and are mercifully under a sheet when Daryl arrives; Aaron stretched out on his side and Paul on his back. There’s a bowl of blackberries resting on the bed in between them and as he watches Aaron plucks one up then drops it into Paul’s open mouth.

Paul smiles and rolls his eyes, “You’re such a cornball.”

“Mmmm-hmmm,” Aaron agrees, tossing a berry into his own mouth, “Get used to it, this isn’t just a honeymoon phase thing with me. It’s only going to get worse.”

Paul chuckles and obediently opens his mouth so Aaron can feed him another berry. Aaron watches him chew and swallow then bends down to kiss him. When he pulls back he takes a minute to just stare down at Paul with a dopey smile plastered on his face.

“God, quit looking at me like that,” Paul says, cheeks turning pink as turns his head to the side.

“Nah, don’t think I will,” Aaron replies easily, “Just so you know I’m looking at you even harder now. Hey pal, do you want to know something?”

“What?”

“I love you,” Aaron says, eyes soft.

Paul’s cheeks color again, “Are you ever going to get tired of saying that?”

“Nope. In fact I’m going to say it even more, until you stop flinching when I do. I love you.”

Paul turns back and looks up into Aaron’s face, “Am I flinching?”

“Just a little,” Aaron says, smile going from dopey to a little sad.

“I’m sorry,” Paul says, “I don’t mean—“

Aaron shuts him up with another kiss then nuzzles his cheek, whispering, “I love you” over and over.

“I love you too,” Paul says quietly, once Aaron has finished attacking him with kisses.

Daryl knows he’s being a hypocrite; this sleepy love talk is just as intimate and personal as any fucking could be. But it’s all he can do to leave when they start fucking; he can’t stand staying away any longer than he has to.

Aaron gives Paul another kiss, then asks, “Do you really have to leave tomorrow?”

“I should be leaving tonight,” Paul says, “Fuck, I should’ve left days ago. Spring semester’s starting the day after tomorrow, normally I would’ve been working this past week to get the store ready.” He rubs his eyes, “Enid has been sending me panicked texts, Dr. Hill is being a bag of cocks and she’s too shy to tell him to go fuck himself.”

Ugh,” Aaron says, “Gregory is still teaching?”

“He has tenure, I’m stuck with him forever. But I finally taught him his place, and if he wants a hundred copies of his shitty book available for his students to buy then he needs to send in his orders on time.”

“Did you actually read his book?” Aaron says, making a face.

“There was an attempt,” Paul says, “I made it through a chapter before I started having flashbacks to his class. How the fuck did you all sit through his lectures without the liberal use of cocaine?”

“I know I should be a Dad Friend and give you a disapproving look,” Aaron says, “But this is the one time I don’t frown on your past drug use.”

Paul snorts, “Thank you for your understanding. But yeah. Unfortunately duty calls.”

Aaron sighs, “Ok,” he fidgets a little, “I could…I could come with you.”

Daryl’s heart plummets at those words, although this is hardly a surprise. He knows that he’s going to miss Paul being here, even with all the fucking they do that makes him feel like he’s going crazy. Aaron is definitely going to miss him even more, and unlike Daryl he isn’t trapped up here.

Paul swallows, “I…what about your book?”

“I can finish in Atlanta,” Aaron says, even as doubt flickers across his face.

“Really?” Paul says, “You won’t be distracted?”

Aaron’s eyes are glued to a love bite on Paul’s neck, and he shakes his head, “I think I’ll be ok.”

Paul smiles, “Yeah, I have doubts. Look, stay up here with Daryl. I’ll come back next weekend.”

“It’s a long drive,” Aaron says, doubtful.

“You’re worth it,” Paul says, “Besides, I like being here with you. No one but our sexy ghost to know about us.”

“Oh, so I’m your ghost too, now?” Daryl mutters. He’d be blushing if was still alive.

“Good point,” Aaron says, “I could do without everyone interrogating us. Oh, I need to call Sasha, though.”

“Why?” Paul asks, frowning.

“I. Um. I called her and asked for advice,” Aaron says sheepishly, “Since she went through the same thing with Rosita. Or almost the same thing. Y’know, asking if she wanted to be more than friends.”

Paul is grinning a little, “Well, at least you talked to the one person in our friendship group who can keep a secret.”

“That’s kind of what she said,” Aaron says, “And that apparently everyone wants us to get together. Except for Maggie, for some reason…” he trails off, and Daryl watches understanding unfold on Aaron’s face, “Actually, I know why. I told her what I said to you, and…uh…if she knew how you felt all this time…fuck, how am I still alive and not buried in a shallow grave next to Daryl?”

“Don’t even joke ‘bout shit like that,” Daryl rasps. The thought of Aaron’s bones left forgotten in these woods makes him feel ill, even if he knows there’s not a chance of that happening.

Paul frowns at Aaron, eyes far away and unfocused, “Not funny, pal. I worry about you alone up here sometimes.”

“It wasn’t a joke, your big sis is terrifying,” Aaron says, dropping his eyes, “Sorry. I’m careful when I’m up here. Leave messages with people when I go for a hike, and I got that little toy for my cell phone so I can make satellite calls if I can’t get reception.”

Paul shakes his head, “Well, anyway. Yeah, if Maggie knows about that she isn’t going to be happy about us. All the more reason to keep it on the down low for a bit longer. Fuck, I better call Hershel and let him know not to say anything…”

“So I can’t update my Facebook relationship status?” Aaron says, grinning a little.

“Dork,” Paul says, the last of his frown fading and the smile returning.

“You let Javier do it,” Aaron says, “Side note: I hate Javier. I know he’s a nice guy and was good for you but I hate him. Like, lots. Feels good to admit it.”

Paul laughs, “That’s not new information. Although I thought it was because you were being a Dad Friend and suspicious of his intentions.”

“Well, that too. I don’t hate him as much as I hate Fucking Alex—feels good to call him that to your face.”

“That is also not brand new information,” Paul says, “Everyone hates Alex. I hate Alex.”

Aaron frowns and fiddles with the sheets, “Eric said to me once that the reason I write so much about murder is that I don’t understand it, I’m too nice. When Fucking Alex answered your phone all I could think was, ‘Oh. I get it now.’”

“That’s…weirdly romantic,” Paul says.

A smile flickers on Aaron’s face, “Weirdly romantic; that’s me. But anyway, like I said it’s only going to get worse.”

*******************************************

Paul has to get up before dawn to head to Atlanta. Daryl isn’t sure if he’s going to make it, his goodbye kiss to Aaron has lasted for several minutes.

“Mmmm,” Aaron says, kissing him deeper, “Don’t go.”

“I’m going to be late for work,” Paul says, although he doesn’t try very hard to stop Aaron.

“Quit your job,” Aaron says recklessly, “Come up here and be my kept man.”

“Now that’s never going to happen,” Paul says, smiling as Aaron kisses him again and again.

“Let me hire you as my research assistant then,” Aaron says tilting Paul back, “Or you can start an online business where you can work remotely.”

Paul lets Aaron kiss him more, lets him get dirty, sliding his tongue into the other man’s mouth. Daryl things they’re going to have a quickie right there in the doorway but Paul finally extracts himself from Aaron, who pouts hilariously. “Tempting,” he says, flushed and out of breath, “But not…not any time soon, ok?”

Aaron sighs, “Ok. I’m going to be finished with this book soon anyways. So…so I’ll be able to come down to Atlanta and stay.”

“Good,” Paul says, smiling, “I’ll see you this weekend, ok?”

“Text me when you get home,” Aaron says, “And be careful.”

*******************************************

Aaron, to Daryl’s surprise, actually gets a ton of work done in the following week. He’s back in his routine—breakfast, hike, writing in four hour blocks—with the new addition of talking to Paul every night before bed. One of them calls the other before it gets too late and they spend hours talking.

One night Daryl stretches out in bed next to Aaron while he talks to Paul. Because the world is fucking magic these days Aaron can talk to Paul using video, and Daryl is struck by the way Aaron holds his phone while he does. He lies on his side and gently cups it with one hand, much the same way Daryl saw him cup the back of Paul’s head when they talked in bed a few times.

“Tara’s starting to suspect something,” Paul says.

“I think Glenn is too,” Aaron replies, “He called to ask if I’d be in Atlanta for Hershel’s birthday party, and some of the things he said made me think he’d figured it out.”

Are you going to be in Atlanta for Hershel’s party?” Paul asks.

“Well, I assume you will be and therefore can’t come up here, so yeah.”

“Good,” Paul says.

Daryl is across from Aaron and therefore can’t see Paul’s video, so he has no idea why Aaron’s eyes widen a fraction and his cheeks go pink. “Uh,” Aaron says, “Are you naked?”

“Yeah,” Paul answers, sounding amused.

Aaron looks flustered and it’s so adorable Daryl wonders how Paul’s able to restrain himself from jumping into a car and coming back here. “I’m not really not into the whole phone sex thing…”

Presumptuous, pal,” Paul says, sounding even more amused, “I sleep naked. When I’m at my own place, at least.”

“Oh,” Aaron says, “Ok, so…I said I don’t do phone sex, but…could you…”

Daryl hears Paul chuckle, then sees Aaron’s face flush darker, nostrils flaring.

“Like the view?” Paul says.

“It’s ok,” Aaron says.

“Just ok?” Paul teases, “If you want to help me out I can make it better. Tell me a story.”

Aaron’s breathing has picked up and his grip on his phone tightens, “What kind of a story?” he says, in that low feral voice he uses when he and Paul fuck.

“A sexy one. Duh.”

“Ok,” Aaron says. He breathes in and out a few time, sweat beading on his forehead, “I can tell you about that night in LA. What I wanted to do to you—“

This is Daryl’s cue to leave. He gets out of the bed and drifts downstairs then onto the porch to sit in one of the rockers, enjoying the sight of a nearly full moon bright against the snow. He wonders what will happen when Aaron finishes Knots Untie. Daryl had anticipated Aaron leaving for another long stretch even before he got with Paul, now he has the new worry that maybe Aaron won’t come back. Or at least not for longer than a weekend at a time so that Paul can come too. He reminds himself not to borrow trouble, and even if he only sees Aaron for a day or two at a time it will be worth it if it means Daryl can see Paul as well.

*******************************************

Aaron finishes the third draft of Knots Untie in mid-February. He convinces Paul to read it when the other man comes for his weekly visit by saying it would be a great Valentine’s Day present.

“I’m sure my publisher will want me to do a few re-writes,” Aaron explains, “But this is the director’s cut. So to speak.” He fiddles with his fingers anxiously, “I…I really want you to read it.”

“Ok,” Paul says, “On just this one occasion I’ll swallow my spoiler aversion.”

Aaron smiles, and sends Paul an electronic copy to read on his tablet. He starts reading immediately, stretching out on the couch with his feet in Aaron’s lap while the other man attempts to read a book of his own. Daryl’s been too distracted by Paul’s frequent presence this past month to do too much hovering over Aaron’s shoulder while he writes so this is his first read of the final draft as well.

After several long hours Paul gets to the part where “Daryl” meets Jason. He reads through to the point where Jason kisses Daryl for the first time then lays the tablet across his chest and gives Aaron a look that Daryl can’t read, “Did you base Jason on me?”

The tips of Aaron’s ears turn red, “Not on purpose, not at first. I…Andrea originally called him ‘boring’ and said she couldn’t figure out why Daryl falls in love with him. When I went to fix him you just kept creeping into thoughts.”

“Oh,” Paul says softly, cheeks pink.

“Do you mind?” Aaron asks, “That’s actually one of the reasons I wanted you to read it before sending it to my publisher.”

Paul swallows and looks away, “No. I just…well, let’s just say I would’ve had an easier time believing you loved me if you had me read this first.”

Aaron can’t answer, beyond grinning hugely and twiddling Paul’s toes a little. After a few minutes Paul goes back to reading.

Paul spends most of the day reading, with only a quick break to eat dinner with Aaron. After dinner he goes up to the sleeping loft to keep reading while Aaron watches the news. Paul strips down to his t-shirt and boxers then stretches out in the bed on his side, head propped up on his arm and tablet in front of him. Daryl stretches out behind him a careful distance away and continues reading along.

After a few more hours of reading Daryl is vaguely aware that Aaron has switched off the news and is fluttering around nervously. Finally he comes up the stairs and asks Paul if he’s finished yet, and what he thinks.

“I’m a little more than half way done,” Paul says, not looking up from his tablet, “And I’m not telling you what I think until I’m finished.”

Aaron responds by undoing his pants and pushing them to the ground, so he’s only in a t-shirt and boxers as well. He steps out of his jeans and flops dramatically in the bed between Daryl and Paul. He rolls onto his side and runs his hand from Paul’s knee to his hip. “I think you should take a break,” he says.

“Do you mind,” Daryl grumbles, “I’m trying to read this. You two can do this any time.”

“This is your book I’m reading,” Paul says.

“What’s taking so long?” Aaron pouts, “I know you read faster than this.”

“Well, I want to give it my full attention. Take notes.”

“Ok, ok, fine,” Aaron shifts so his head is tucked against Paul’s shoulder and he can read along too. It blocks Daryl’s view so he shifts as well, ignoring the awkward flush he gets when he curls around Aaron’s back. It’s quiet, the room still. Paul pauses at the end of the page he’s reading and drags his finger across the screen to highlight a few words.

“Stop that,” Paul says. Daryl’s been so absorbed with reading that he hasn’t noticed Aaron’s hand has slid from Paul’s hip to under his shirt.

“What?” Aaron says, voice innocent, “I can’t touch my boyfriend?”

“Don’t think I can’t tell what you’re trying to do,” Paul says.

“Don’t know what you mean,” Aaron says, shifting again, so his hips are pressed against Paul’s ass.

Daryl shivers. Being a ghost is confusing shit, and he thinks back to that movie the Aaron and Paul watched the other night. It was just a film, but he though whoever wrote it had hit on a few correct ideas on what being dead was like. That Daryl sees a body because he’s used to seeing one, he feels things with ‘hands’ because that’s what he did in life. That he’s not physically in the bed with the two living men, curled up around Aaron’s back who is in turn curled around Paul’s. And even if he was he shouldn’t feel phantom warmth against his own back or feel something hot and hard wedged in the crack of his ass. But he does, right between his cheeks. He remembers seeing Aaron in his boxers by the swimming hole and thinking he was proportional and he has confirmation of that now.

Paul’s breathing speeds up, even as he pretends to still read. Aaron starts rocking his hips, and Daryl feels that phantom pressure again, Aaron’s dick sliding against him, feels it through layers of cloth. What he wants—what they both want is obvious and the thought sends a jolt through Daryl. He’s been trying hard not to think about what exactly the two men get up to in bed but they’ve obviously done this before. Aaron’s fucked Paul and they’ve certainly done it the other way around. Daryl has no idea whose place he’d like to take in either scenario; his mind conjures a blur of images—on all fours in front of Paul while the other man fucks him, Aaron lying on his stomach while Daryl makes him take it.

Aaron starts to kiss Paul’s neck, his beard is soft and his lips are wet and his breath is hot and Daryl shivers again. I need to leave, he thinks to himself, a little desperate. Paul is clearly not going to get any more reading done tonight, in fact he’s arcing back into Aaron with a contented sigh, rubbing his butt deliberately against Aaron’s dick. When Aaron slides his hand all the way under Paul’s shirt up to his nipples he doesn’t protest.

I need to leave, Daryl thinks again. Paul twists his head around so that he and Aaron can kiss and Daryl hears a muffled moan from one of them, he can’t tell who. Aaron’s hips are rocking faster, Daryl can feel him against his front and back; can feel a thumb tracing his nipple.

I need to leave, or at least get out of bed.

Instead he slides his own hand over Aaron’s arm, feeling his bicep, moving down his elbow and joining his forearm beneath Paul’s shirt. He can feel the bones of Aaron’s hand, the way his thumb moves as he rolls it over Paul’s nipple. Daryl’s own thumb joins his, mimicking the movement. Daryl feels how hard that nipple is beneath the soft skin, and without thinking why he gets rougher than Aaron, pinching and he feels a flash of pain/pleasure—

Paul’s entire body jerks in Aaron’s arms and he shouts wordlessly, making Aaron jump. Paul’s hands flail out and grab at the sheets, yanking them as he pushes back into Aaron’s dick, lips pulled back from his teeth and eyes squeezed shut. Before Daryl or Aaron can remove their hands from underneath his shirt Paul is twisting around, slamming Aaron onto his back and straddling his hips. Daryl is knocked over onto his own back right next to Aaron, and as he watches Paul sits up just enough to yank his shirt off over his head and toss it to the side before he starts attacking Aaron. He grabs Aaron’s curls and yanks his head back, pressing frantic kisses against his mouth while he writhes in Aaron’s lap. His hands scramble at Aaron’s shirt and Daryl hears the sound of fabric ripping.

“Whoah,” Aaron says, caught off guard from Paul going from zero to five hundred in the time it’d take to snap his fingers. He recovers quickly, sitting up so that Paul can get his shirt off then wrapping his arms around the smaller man. Rolls them over so that he’s on top and Daryl has to scramble aside to avoid getting Paul literally thrown on top of him. He watches Paul shove both hands down Aaron’s boxers, hands squeezing his ass then shoving them down before squirming out of his own in an uncoordinated tangle.

“Whoah,” Aaron say’s pulling away, “Fuck pal, slow down—“

Paul doesn’t listen, just grabs him and tugs him back, barely able to pant out, “Fuck…Aaron, I need you inside me, right now, just…”

Daryl feels a jolt of pure heat pass through him at those words, some savage want. I need to leave, I need to leave—

He can’t. He feels pinned to the bed just as Paul is pinned beneath Aaron, unable to do anything but twist in the sheets and bite his hand.

Aaron growls and slams his full weight against Paul, letting the other man push his boxers the rest of the way down and kicking them off with his feet. They’re both naked and Daryl can’t look away, he’s done his best to be respectful since that first time where he only caught a few glimpses of either man. He watches the muscles of Aaron’s butt flex as he rocks against Paul, every one outlined and beautiful. There’s a growing pressure and tension in Daryl’s gut and just when he thinks he can’t take it any more Aaron is rolling away to the nightstand by the bed to grab a rubber and a bottle of lube that he tosses on the sheets. He’s on his haunches and Daryl can see all of him, his dick fully hard and flushed red at the tip. Daryl wants it in his mouth, wants to run his face over. He can see Paul too, dick a little smaller but just as hard laying agains his belly, and Daryl has to fight from just throwing himself on him. He has to remind himself that he’s dead and has no real mouth or body even as he shivers and twists in the sheets.

Paul spreads his legs as Aaron squeezes an absurd amount of lube into the palm of his hand. Daryl watches with wide eyes as Aaron reaches down and starts applying it in between Paul’s legs. Paul lets out a moan and starts rocking his hips, “Aaron, just do it, I’ll be fine—“

“Yeah, no,” Aaron breathes out, wrist flexing as he works him open. He leans over Paul, propping himself up on his other elbow so they can kiss.

“I’m not a delicate fucking flower,” Paul says, pressing one arm over his face and grabbing at Aaron’s dick. Aaron snatches his hand away and slams it against the bed. Paul makes another noise of pure frustration as Aaron goes back fingering him. Daryl knows Aaron is only able to get rough with Paul and pin him down because the other man lets him, if he wanted to he could break free and have Aaron on his back, a thought that sends a jolt of excitement through Daryl. He’s forgotten about even trying to leave, no guilt or shame for intruding on such an intimate moment is powerful enough to combat the pull Daryl feels.

Aaron moves his fingers in and out faster, Daryl sees his bicep flexing as he picks up speed. Paul’s moaning, telling Aaron he’s ready. “Nah,” Aaron says, removing his fingers and slathering them with more lube before thrusting them back in, “Not quite there yet.” Paul’s hand flails out and grabs at the sheets, right next to where Daryl own is clenched in a fist. And Daryl…

Daryl reaches out and grabs his hand, squeezing his fingers and Paul clutches him back—

Aaron is inches from his face, the closest they’ve been since that kiss years ago, eyes blue and ferocious in their intensity, but Daryl can barely focus on sight as he is assaulted immediately by sensation.

…He can smell Aaron, it’s a collage of different scents, breath smells like mint, he’s brushed his teeth recently, cologne or aftershave that is dark and earthy, and beneath all that sweat and salt…

Feel of sweat trickling down his temples, he’d forgotten the sensation of being too hot and cool air hitting wet skin…

…Heart is pounding, the physical sensation of blood thudding in his veins, breath in his lungs…

…Be able to feel things all over his body, not just his hands, soft sheet against his back, another person’s skin against his inner thighs…

…Dick hard and leaking and pulsing with need…

…Aaron bends down to kiss him, tongue sliding into Daryl’s mouth and he can taste him…

He shouts mindlessly at the shifting array of senses that haven’t been fully used in over three decades. It’s like stepping into Oz, everything dull and gray replaced by glorious color. Just the feeling of the soft sheets against his back is overstimulating on its own, he’s unprepared by the wholly unfamiliar sensation of slick fingers sliding over that space just behind his balls down to—

Daryl yells again.

The world flips. He’s back stretched out beside the two living men, reeling from the aftershock of…whatever the fuck that was. He’s overwhelmed with a need that’s mindless and painful, he throws himself at the two men, desperate to press a body he doesn’t have against theirs. He can feel things in a limited sense, although nothing compared to the vividness he’d just experienced. To his shock when he comes into contact with them he can feel it all over, way down to the center of him. Without thinking he presses his mouth against Paul’s and—

…He’s beneath Aaron again, fingers digging into the other man’s thigh. Aaron has a hold of each of Daryl’s (Paul’s) ankles, and as Daryl watches he raises up his legs, runs his bearded cheek over the sensitive skin of his calf before slinging both legs over his shoulders…

Another flip, he’s like a coin tumbling through the air. On his side, pressed against Aaron and Paul. He realizes with a start that he’s naked, the clothes he was murdered in and has worn permanently for over thirty years gone. On some level he knows he should be more amazed by this but he doesn’t care, everything is distant and dreamlike and he feels like he has no control over himself. He sees that Aaron is finally sliding the rubber over his dick and coating it with lube. Aaron shifts forward, pushing Paul’s knees to his chest—

Daryl can’t breathe, he’s gasping for air and he can feel Aaron’s dick sliding into position, no cloth now, just thin latex, Daryl can feel hot it is…

On his side. He grabs Paul’s hair and jerks; to his shock Paul’s neck arcs back like Daryl is actually touching him. Daryl covers his mouth with his own, swallows the cry Paul makes when Aaron starts pushing inside him—

He feels Aaron slide in, stretching him, filling him up, relentless, inch by inch and he cries out helplessly again and again until Aaron’s all the way inside…

Daryl’s face is buried in Paul’s throat and he stretches his hand out to loop it around Aaron’s neck. He can feel the echoes of being in someone else’s skin, it’s enough that he can truly feel the two men as they move…

Aaron has started to move, roll his hips slow and steady and Daryl squirms into it, needing more, desperate, clawing at Aaron’s back until the other man grabs his wrists and pins them over his head, pressing down…

Beside him Paul is squirming in Aaron’s grip, Daryl knows he can break free easily so he lunges forward and grabs Paul’s wrists, covering Aaron’s hands with his own and adding his strength—

Daryl’s pinned down even though Aaron has a hold of his hips now instead of his wrists and is starting to push in and out faster, with more force, Daryl can feel the phantom sensation of hands holding him down and it gives him an electric jolt…

…He’s looking down into Paul’s face as the other man gets fucked, his eyes are rolled back in his head and he’s mouthing nonsense words. He’s red from the tip of his leaking dick up to his chest and neck and Daryl tightens his grip on his wrists—

Aaron’s moving faster and faster, leaning forward and snapping his hips again and again,there’s warmth radiating from Daryl’s dick as well as his pelvis and stomach, a pressurized pleasure so intense and when it hits it’s beyond anything he remembers from his distant days of being alive, his skin feels so sensitive he can feel every hair follicle in his scalp and…

He’s leaning over Paul kissing him desperately, he can hear Aaron above him doing his fucking talking thing, growling low and feral that he wants to see it, wants to see Paul fucking come…

Daryl feels it move through him, hears himself shout out in a weird echo since he can hear his own voice and Paul’s both…

Paul doesn’t just come, he explodes, gasping for Aaron not to stop as it arcs up to where Daryl is kissing him and if he was actually there he’d be hit in the face with it and that thought…

Aaron moves in him again and again Daryl can see flashes of light and colors flickering in his vision before half a century of loneliness is blotted out in a wave of pleasure and love; it’s too much, he can’t tell if he’s kissing Aaron or Paul or being fucked or rubbing his dick against their bare bodies everything is a kaleidoscope of sensation, touch and taste and smell and he—

Switches off.

******************************************

Daryl hasn’t switched off since the fleet of construction trucks appeared on the ridge above his grave almost four years ago, and he has never switched off involuntarily. It’s always a deliberate and conscious choice.

So he’s far more bewildered than normal when he returns to the world. He thinks of it as ‘waking up’ although that’s not quite what it is. He goes from nothing, an empty vessel in a way that is impossible for the living to understand to sound, to sight, and his memories slip back in one at a time, from being a little boy to his murder to what he was thinking of immediately prior to switching off.

He can hear men’s voices, one exhausted and saying if the other calls an ambulance then they’re breaking up.

“I don’t care, so long as you’re alive to do it,” the second voice says.

“Aaron, I’m not going to drop dead. Compromise, call Denise,” the first voice says, “if she says I should go to the ER then I’ll call the ambulance myself.”

A woman’s voice, asking if Paul has ever fainted before, and Daryl slowly remembers who he is and where. He’s stretched out on bed next to Paul. His clothes have returned, the familiar black t-shirt and jeans he was murdered in. Next to him Paul is shiny with sweat and looks thoroughly debauched, blissed out, boneless and loose. The same can’t be said of Aaron, he is hovering anxiously on the edge of the bed leaning over Paul and taking his pulse with one hand and clutching his phone in the other.

“Once,” Paul says, sounding drugged, “When I was a kid. But never since then.”

“What caused it?”

“The school nurse telling me that my entire family was dead,” unbelievably Paul giggles after saying this, “No where near as fun as this was.”

“His pulse is seventy-two beats per minute,” Aaron says.

“That’s my normal resting heart rate, just so you  know,” Paul says.

“Drug use?” Denise asks.

“No—“

“Extensive,” Aaron interrupts, “In college he dabbled pretty heavily in stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines.”

“Over ten years ago—“

That sort of thing can still cause heart damage,” Aaron shoots back.

“I feel—“

“Don’t say you feel ‘fine’,” Aaron says.

“I don’t feel fine,” Paul says, “I feel fucking amazing, like if my boyfriend weren’t having a panic attack I’d ask when he think he’d be ready for another go.”

“Don’t act like I’m being irrational for being concerned that you fucking passed out—“

Guys,” Denise says, “I can’t diagnose Jesus over the phone, but if his heart rhythm is normal and he’s conscious I don’t think he’s in immediate danger. It could be several different things—vasovagal syncope is my guess just from what you said, that’s when your vagus nerve gets overstimulated and lowers your blood pressure. If that’s what it is he should be fine, will just have to avoid certain triggers in the future. I’d recommend keeping an eye on him for tonight then getting a complete workup at a cardiologist.”

Aaron’s fingers twitch rapidly, “Ok,” he says, “Thank you.”

“If you have any more questions or he has another episode,” Denise says, “Please don’t hesitate to call me.”

Aaron thanks her again and hangs up. He stares down at the phone, breathing in and out. Finally he says, “I’m going to go make some coffee, I won’t be getting any sleep tonight anyways.”

“Aaron,” Paul says, grabbing his hand to stop him, “I’m ok, but I get why you’re upset.”

“No you don’t,” Aaron says, “Fuck, pal. Promise me you won’t die before me. I can’t…I couldn’t take that.”

Paul stares at him, “I don’t know if that’s a thing anyone can promise someone. Besides, I have more tragedy points than you so you don’t get to die before me.”

“We can debate about tragedy points,” Aaron says, “But no, I’m not going to outlive you. I refuse; I don’t care if it’s sixty years from now.”

“Bold of you to assume you won’t have gotten sick of my shit sixty years from now,” Paul says, trying to sound light and teasing.

Aaron doesn’t buy it. He’s looking something up on his phone, eyes flicking rapidly. “What happened?” he mutters, “Denise said certain things can trigger vaso—however the fuck you say it. What did we do that was different?”

Daryl feels a cold stab of guilt. He knows what was different this time. This time instead of watching like a fucking pervert Daryl had somehow…slipped into Paul’s body. He’d been the one to switch off, and he somehow brought Paul along for the ride. “Fuck,” he rasps, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to, I don’t know how it happened…” He has some theories, and they all have to do with Paul Rovia’s general strangeness.

An odd expression passes over Paul’s face, “I don’t…I don’t remember. It was just…fucking hell, since we started having sex it’s been fantastic, but I’ve never felt anything close to that before. I literally…a couple times it was like I’d left my body.”

Aaron rakes a hand through his curls, “I’ll call around tomorrow, get you in for some tests.”

“It’s Sunday tomorrow,” Paul reminds him.

“I don’t care,” Aaron says, “I’m fucking rich, the rules don’t apply to me.”

“My insurance will cover it, you don’t have to—“

“You’re not waiting for insurance to dick you around and approve this. Break up with me, be mad at me, I don’t care about that either. Like I said so long as you’re alive to do it.”

More guilt twists through Daryl. He remembers Aaron telling him how Eric died, how he’d been having symptoms for over a year and both men hadn’t thought anything of them. “Aaron,” Daryl whispers, “Fuck, I’m sorry. I don’t…it was me, there ain’t nothing wrong with him.”

Paul doesn’t get angry, he just wraps his arms around Aaron and kisses him again. “Ok. I’ll see any doc or take any test you want.” He pauses for a beat, “Do we have to wait until after to have sex again? I know tonight’s off the table, but—“

Aaron lets out a shaky breath, “We’ll see.”

Aaron was right, he doesn’t get any sleep that night. He stays awake staring at the rise and fall of Paul’s chest long after the other man has gone to sleep himself. Daryl sees that haunted look in his eyes and knows he’s the one who put it there. He’s never felt shittier in his life or after than he does at this moment.

The two men leave the next morning, Aaron telling Paul he’ll do any re-writes in Atlanta.

“Shouldn’t be much,” he says, “And if I have trouble doing them in Atlanta it’s nothing compared to what I’ll do if I’m up here.” Paul doesn’t argue, just squeezes Aaron’s hand.

Daryl watches them leave, Aaron driving. A few minutes later he feels them leave the boundaries of his haunt and it’s like all the color in the world is gone. He’s alone again, and has no idea for how long. He fucking deserves to be alone. He drifts down to his grave and settles down on top of his bones.

He doesn’t move from the spot for several days.

Chapter Text

Aaron and Paul don’t return to the cabin for months. Daryl isn’t sure how long it is exactly, he loses track of time when the last of the snows melt. The life of his valley holds little interest to him and he finds himself spending most of his time at his grave castigating himself for what he’d done. He tells himself that Paul is ok and there is no chance Daryl caused him permanent harm but can’t make himself believe it.

It’s late June or July when Olivia—the new caretaker—spends an extra long day changing out the linen and giving the cabin a deep clean. Daryl doesn’t think much of it and barely registers her presence—she’s nice enough but boring and easily startled. Daryl gets little enjoyment out of watching her and even less from fucking with her by flickering the lights off or knocking over her cleaning supplies. He misses Carol, but from what he’s gathered from Aaron she’s gotten a better job in town and might be dating the preacher at her church. Good on her.

A few days after Olivia’s unusually long visit Daryl feels that psychic equivalent of a cannon ball hitting him dead center as living people enter his haunt. Only one person in Daryl’s long afterlife hits him that strongly, but it’s not until the Jeep pulls us in front of the cabin and Paul climbs out of the passenger seat that he believes the two men have finally returned. Aaron climbs down from the car next and stretches. Daryl hangs back at the front porch watching them, feeling shy and nervous and cautiously happy.

Paul looks down the dirt road leading up to the cabin and says, “They were right behind us.”

“They might’ve pulled over to take in some of the views,” Aaron says, slinging an arm casually over Paul’s shoulders, “It’s impossible to get lost once you hit the road.”

As soon as he says it Daryl notices the faint flicker he gets when living people who are not Paul Rovia enter his haunt. Not a minute later a second car appears followed closely by a third. One is carrying Maggie and Glenn Rhee plus—to Daryl’s surprised delight—Tara. All three of them look frazzled when they emerge from the car and Daryl is hit with another surprise when he hears the shrill cries of a baby. “Uncle Jesus, we need your baby whispering skills,” Tara says, eyes wide. Paul laughs and goes to the back of the car to collect Hershel Eric Rhee. Daryl stares at the baby slack-jawed; he’s seen only a handful of children over the past three decades and never one this young.

“Hey, buddy,” Paul says, “I know, it gets bumpy and a little scary up here, but it’s ok now.” The baby stops crying immediately.

“How do you do that,” Glenn mutters.

“Magic,” Paul says, grinning and making faces at Hershel. The baby laughs and Paul sets him down on the ground. He clings to Paul’s hand and the stuffed tiger Glenn fetches from the car, looking around him in wonder.

Daryl is so entranced by the baby and by Paul that he hasn’t registered who is in the third car. Not until Sasha says, “We’re probably going to need to borrow your skills for Luis later tonight.”

Daryl stares at her. He’s only seen pictures and heard her voice yet feels like he already knows her. It’s the oddest sensation, like seeing an actor in real life after years of seeing them on TV. He feels the same when he sees Rosita and their son. Luis is a year old, even smaller than Hershel, and now the youngest person that Daryl has laid eyes on in the past thirty-five years. Daryl stares at him, helplessly fascinated by his tiny hands that clutch at his mother’s shirt.

Rosita smiles at Aaron, “So this is where the magic happens, huh?”

“Wait until you see the inside!” Tara says, carrying not just her own overnight bag but a few arms full of groceries. “Speaking of, this shit is heavy—“ her eyes widen as she looks at Hershel, “Um, I mean this stuff is heavy. Aaron! Unlock the door!”

This is the first time Daryl has seen Tara in two years and is delighted that first thing she does after unloading her shit is to say, “Hi, Daryl!” As the group of friends unload their various vehicles Tara also chastises Aaron for forgetting to leave on the TV or radio.

“We left in kind of a hurry,” Aaron mutters, sounding guilty.

Tara rolls her eyes, “Oh yeah, because you thought you’d murdered Jesus with your penis.”

Aaron turns scarlet, “Hey, it was scary. And I thought it was a heart condition, not my penis—“

“You’re just that good in bed, pal,” Paul teases, having emerged from showing the Rhees and the Williams-Espinosa family the downstairs guest rooms just in time to witness this exchange. He comes over and wraps his arms around Aaron from behind, pressing a kiss against his cheek, “You could’ve saved ten grand or thereabouts if you weren’t so modest.”

“Really?” Tara says, appalled, “It was that much? Our healthcare system is broken.”

Aaron flushes an even darker shade of red, “It didn’t cost near that much—“ Paul mouths “liar” at Tara, “and even if it did it was worth it to be sure you wouldn’t drop dead.”

Paul gives him a squeeze, “Clean bill of health, you’re stuck with me.”

“I know,” Aaron says, covering Paul’s hands with his own, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

“Ugh, you two are so disgusting,” Tara say, “It’s been six months, how are you still in the honeymoon phase? Speaking of, did you two have sex on this couch I’m supposed to sleep on for the next three days?”

“No,” Paul and Aaron say at the same time.

“Liars,” Daryl says just as Tara says “Bullshit.”

*******************************************

“We need another chair,” Paul says, frowning. The group of friends has unpacked, taken a quick hike, and are setting up for dinner. Rosita and Glenn are cooking and the former has declared, “all white people are banned from touching the food, make yourselves useful.” Maggie and Paul are setting up the table, Aaron and Tara are mixing drinks. Sasha is excused from kitchen duties so she can feed Hershel and Luis, both of whom are blinking and yawning by this time.

“I’m on it,” Maggie says, rolling in Aaron’s desk chair to add to the six that make up the dining table.

“No, we need one more. There are eight of us,” Paul says, with that faraway look in his eyes that Daryl is starting to become familiar with, “Maybe we can bring in one of the rockers from outside—“

“Jesus can’t math tonight,” Tara says from where she and Aaron are preparing some “bomb ass cocktails” in her words, “Have we forgotten that I’m the seventh wheel on this trip?”

“I’ll take the kitchen counter, man. Not like I can actually join in,” Daryl says gruffly.

Paul looks confused for a split second, blinks, and says, “Oh. Derp. Long day, I guess.”

Dinner is a raucous affair, especially after the babies are put to bed and everyone except for Maggie starts drinking. She’s a tall woman and is wearing a loose-fitting tunic so it’s not until Aaron hands her a special virgin cocktail that Daryl realizes she is pregnant again.

“To us!” Tara says, raising her glass, “Clinkies!”

“Yes,” Aaron says, looking down shyly, “Thanks for coming here. I know everyone jokes about this being my fortress of solitude—“

“Fortress of solitude slash secret love nest,” Tara interjects.

“Wasn’t really a secret when Jesus started vanishing every weekend,” Rosita mutters, poking her wife in the side.

“Or when Aaron was disgustingly peppy every time we had a conversation,” Glenn adds. He’s too far away to poke Sasha but still gives her a betrayed look.

“I promised not to tell,” Sasha says, unrepentant.

Aaron and Paul both squirm at the good-natured ribbing before Aaron continues, “but…but I’ve wanted to have everyone up here for a long time. All of us together, I mean. It’s one of the first things we talked about when we started building this place.” When he realizes what he’s said he gives Paul a flustered look but the other man just takes his hand and squeezes it, giving a reassuring smile.

“Yeah,” Paul says, “I remember Eric asking me about it before you guys even broke ground.” There’s an awkward silence before Paul says, “Oh come on, we’re all thinking about him, it’s ok to be sad he’s not here and be happy about…um…” it’s his turn to look shy, “other things. Embrace the contradiction, as Pastor Ezekiel likes to say.”

“Dad really needs to meet this guy,” Maggie says, “has you going to church and quoting him when you’re not in church.”

“Dad can never meet him,” Paul says, “I’ve got a reputation to uphold.”

The group laughs and the tension breaks. Conversation moves on from there, and Daryl listens, enraptured. They reminisce about their college years, Daryl getting a new insight into group dynamics as he watches them all together. Picking up the little subgroups and alliances within the larger group. Sasha and Maggie seem particularly close, the same way Aaron and Glenn are.  Tara and Rosita have their own thing, as do Tara and Paul. All these friendships seem different from what Paul has with Maggie, and Daryl remembers what Aaron said to him ages ago—that Maggie has always considered Paul her brother, even as he tried to keep himself distant. He also remembers Aaron said that Paul wouldn’t visit the farm or Maggie’s father for ages, afraid of fucking things up. Daryl hadn’t missed the way Paul casually referred to Hershel as “Dad” when speaking to Maggie.

They talk about their jobs, and when Aaron tries to throw in his two cents on their work problems he is told he “doesn’t have a real job”, especially now that he’s “part of the one percent” and could live on his royalties alone for the rest of his life.

“Hey, there’s work involved,” Aaron protests, “I have to do a ton of research—“

“You like doing research,” Tara says, “You like research so much you and your boyfriend go on research dates.

“And I have to do book promo—“

“Get to travel on your publisher’s dime,” Glenn says.

“Bare my soul to millions of people and can get ripped to shreds—“

Or gain an army of loyal followers,” Rosita says.

“He does have a twitter army,” Paul says.

“I get death threats!” Aaron says, pinching Paul’s side.

“I’ll protect you from those, don’t worry,” Paul says.

“Good, can I hire you on as my bodyguard?”

“The only way I’d go on your payroll is if we broke up,” Paul says. He says it jokingly but Daryl can tell he means it.

“Yeah, that’s a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen,” Aaron says, playing along. He squeezes Paul’s knee beneath the table.

“Seriously Aaron,” Sasha says, “None of our jobs have us hanging out in LA with movie stars for months.”

“Oh,” Aaron says, shifting uncomfortably, “I dunno if I’m going to do that after all.”

“He is,” Paul says quickly, “He has to keep an eye on those fuckwits. Do you know the first studio that tried to buy Vengeance for the Plunderers wanted to cast a white girl as Clem?”

“Ew,” Sasha says, “Definitely need to keep them in line.”

Aaron and Maggie both give Paul a weighted look before the conversation moves on. Eventually the friends finish dinner and Maggie excuses herself, claiming fatigue. Glenn joins her not long after, followed closely by Sasha and Rosita. Tara, Paul, and Aaron stay up for another hour chatting before the two men head upstairs. Tara calls after them to keep it down if they plan on “sexing each other up”.

Upstairs the two men strip down to their boxers; and when Aaron removes his shirt Daryl notes for the first time that he’s wearing a necklace—Paul’s broken car key dangling on a long silver chain. The two men get into bed, rolling onto their sides and facing each other with their hands clasped loosely. There’s plenty of room on the side of either man and Daryl longs to stretch out next to them, be closer. Enjoy the quiet that comes from the three of them together with no one else intruding. Instead Daryl just sits beside the bed out of reach of any clutching hands and listens.

At first he only hears a few wet noises of kisses being exchanged, and for a moment he thinks they’re going to “sex each other up” with Tara downstairs.

“Mmmm,” Paul sighs, “Wouldn’t mind sexing you up, but I’ve had too many cocktails tonight. I’ll feel differently in the morning but won’t be able to do anything about it. Why did you go with this stupid loft instead of an actual bedroom with a door?”

“Because it’s fun,” Aaron says, “like being in a treehouse or a secret fort or something.”

Paul snorts, “Well, I hope the fun is worth not having sex until our friends leave.”

“You’re the one who makes all the noise,” Aaron says.

“Lies and slander; you’re the one who talks nonstop,” Paul counters.

“Not when my mouth’s full,” Aaron says, an audible leer in his voice. He laughs when Paul groans at him, and there are a few more wet kisses.

“But this is nice,” Paul says quietly, “Being up here. I’ve missed it. We need to come up here again before you go to LA—“

“I’m not going to LA,” Aaron says. Daryl can hear the unspoken “not without you”.

“It’s not that long, pal,” Paul says, “I know getting things right is in important—”

You’re important,” Aaron says, “I don’t want to go to LA, or on a book tour, or anywhere you aren’t. I have to do the second one, the first one I can let go of.”

“I pined after you for ten years, I’ll still be waiting when you get back,” Paul says, voice starting out light and teasing but shaky by the last word.

“You don’t know that,” Aaron says, “I just…I keep thinking of the last time we were here. I can joke about it now, but at the time it was scary.”

“Clean bill of health, remember?” Paul says.

“All I could think of that night,” Aaron continues as though Paul hadn’t interrupted, “Was how stupid I was for waiting so long to tell you how I felt. All those months we could’ve had together. So no, I’m staying put.”

Paul’s quiet, then takes in a deep breath, “I could quit my job. I’ve got enough in savings to take care of shit for a couple of months. Get something more flexible.”

Aaron doesn’t answer for a while, “You like your job. I…I’m not asking you to quit. To rearrange your whole life for me.”

Paul snorts, “You know how you said sometimes I act like I don’t matter? I feel like my job is…well, I’m afraid to give it up and in a few months we’ll break up and I’ll be on my own again.”

“Well, that’s not going to happen,” Aaron says.

Paul sounds sad, “You don’t know that, like I don’t know if I’ll drop dead next week. It’s a leap of faith.”

“Well,” Aaron says, “we don’t have to decide anything soon. Let’s just enjoy a nice weekend with our friends, ok? Then when they finally leave a nice week of sexing each other up.” The bed creaks a little as the men shift, and before long their breath evens out.

Daryl waits for an unknown amount of time before going up to look at them. Both men are still on their sides facing each other, legs tangled together loosely. Daryl stares at them, fingers jittering against his thigh as he goes over their conversation and everything that the group talked about over dinner. From what he understands Aaron wants to go out to LA to be more involved in the filming of movie based off of his book. He’s not sure exactly what that means, just that he’ll be gone. Aaron doesn’t want to leave Paul that long, Paul doesn’t want to stand in his way. Also it’s been months since the incident where Paul fainted and Aaron is still worried over it, worried to the tune of thousands of dollars.

“Glad you two are back,” Daryl whispers, “I’m sorry again for hurting Paul, and for scaring Aaron. Won’t never happen again.”

Paul shifts in his sleep, face wrinkling, “’S ok,” he slurs out, “wasn’t on purpose.”

Daryl freezes, staring down at him. One of Paul’s hands is curled up by his face, palm up and tempting. Daryl reaches for it, overcome with the certainty that this time it will work, he will somehow end up in Paul’s dream. Be able to sit down and talk to him, figure out once and for all why sometimes the other man can hear him and why he acts like he doesn’t. Tell him to stop with the “sexy ghost” shit. His hand is inches from Paul’s own when he remembers Aaron’s haunted eyes as he watched the other man sleep the night after Daryl made him pass out. Remembers that Aaron spent thousands of dollars because he was so worried that Paul was going to die.

Daryl snatches his hand back. He holds it at his side, fingers curled in a fist. He vows not to try any shit like that ever again, it’s not worth it. There’s no point in being greedy, being allowed to witness these two men happy and in love is enough. Knowing that he had a small role in making it happen is more than enough.

“I love you both so much,” Daryl whispers.

Paul stirs in his sleep again, the fingers of that one tempting hand curling closed, like he’s trying to hold on to something that isn’t there.

******************************************

The next three days are overwhelming in a good way. Daryl feels like a dog chasing its tail going round and round in circles, there are so many people and so much to watch. He tries to be everywhere at once—obviously Aaron and Paul are who he’s the most glad to see but the others are interesting enough to compete for his attentions. Hershel and Luis especially—Daryl is fascinated by the children. Despite their age difference they play together well; Luis crawls after Hershel who indulges him with his toys, trying to teach him how to play.

More conversations with the GREATMS; splitting up occasionally into smaller groups. Sasha, Maggie, and Paul going for a swim while Glenn and Rosita watch the kids and Aaron and Tara make a run into Blue Ridge. Aaron staying up late one night chatting to Glenn on the porch. Glenn talks about baby number two, about how he and Maggie are planning on buying a house, about his promotion at work, about the health scare his mother had recently where the doctor found a mass on her thyroid. Benign, thank fuck, but it definitely terrified Glenn. Aaron talks about how things are going with Paul, how happy he is. About his next book, which so far he has no plans for.

“Could write a sequel to Knots Untie,” Glenn says, “There seemed like more story to tell.”

“I don’t know about writing a sequel,” Aaron mutters.

“Well, it seemed like it was a special book for you,” Glenn snorts out a laugh, “You know, I think reading it was the main reason Maggie stopped howling for your blood. You were kinda…screamingly obvious with who it was really about.”

“That’s probably the best review I’ve ever gotten or will ever get,” Aaron says with a snort of his own, “Powerful enough to convince Maggie Rhee to let me live another day.”

*******************************************

Aaron and Paul stay for a few days after the rest of the GREATMS leave. Daryl barely has time to feel sad over them leaving because as soon as Paul and Aaron come inside after waving everyone off they’re all over each other.

Daryl instantly jumps away, stumbling a little. Paul drags Aaron over to the couch and pushes him down. Daryl tries to leave, but that pull has him like a riptide, especially when Paul climbs into Aaron’s lap. That pull intensifies, and as he watches them kiss he feels a flash of irrational jealousy. He knows what Aaron’s mouth tastes like now, but he doesn’t know what Paul’s does. That night Daryl had kissed him but it hadn’t been the same as being in a living body, only a faint echo. The same as what it was like to touch that firm little body, like when Aaron tugs Paul’s shirt off and runs his hands over him.

Daryl drops his eyes and clenches his fists. He hears the soft purr of a zipper and feels another savage pull, making him stumble forward a half step. Aaron moans, and Daryl can’t help himself. He raises his head and sees Aaron sprawled out against the couch, legs spread wide. His jeans are undone just enough for Paul to take his dick out, he has it in his hands and is nuzzling and licking it. Aaron squirms, one hand grabbing at Paul’s hair. He gives a full body shudder when Paul takes him all the way in his mouth, head falling back against the edge of the couch.

Daryl tells himself to leave or at least close his eyes, but he doesn’t have the energy to fight both urges.

So he stays where he is, watching Aaron’s face as Paul sucks him, dozens of different expressions of pleasure flickering across it. Watches as the hair at his temples darkens with sweat, a few beads sliding down his forehead. Watches as he tangles both hands in Paul’s hair to hold his head still as he fucks into his mouth. When he comes Daryl can almost taste it; salty and metallic.

Paul remains on the floor with Aaron’s dick in his mouth until the other man tugs at his hair and pulls him into his lap.

Fuck,” Daryl says as Aaron shifts so he’s laying flat on the couch, head propped on one arm. He grabs Paul’s hips and pulls him so he’s sitting on Aaron’s chest, undoing his fly and taking his own dick out. Aaron’s barely able to get his mouth on him before he comes, making Daryl feel weak and shimmery.

*******************************************

Daryl watches them for the remainder of their visit. He still feels like a fucking creep, but the guilt isn’t enough to give him the strength to fight this. He rationalizes it to himself—Paul said he didn’t mind, Daryl barely gets to see them anymore so leaving them even for an hour is torture, and if he just watches there isn’t as much temptation to do more. Temptation is still there, however. Particularly one night after watching Paul push Aaron down on his stomach, spread his legs, and start fucking him. Daryl watches wide-eyed at how Aaron clutches at the sheets, how he braces himself against the mattress and shoves back against Paul, how he starts fucking talking. A litany of more, give it to me, harder, I love your dick, so good…

Paul growls and bites the back of Aaron’s neck, hips a blur of motion as he slams into the other man again and again. Daryl shimmers and the word mine flashes across his mind with every thrust of Paul’s hips. Mine, mine, mine, mine, MINE.

Daryl doesn’t know if he wants to fuck Aaron like that or be fucked by Paul like that or if he wants both of them to take turns on him or any combination of those scenarios. He does know it doesn’t matter what he wants; he’s fucking dead. It pays to remind himself of that fact.

*******************************************

The following year is both the happiest and saddest of Daryl’s afterlife.

Aaron and Paul come for a brief visit at the end of summer. During that visit they lament often that they can’t stay longer before heading out to LA. For the first time in a long while Daryl starts to seriously consider that one day they just won’t come back. The winter is long and lonely and Daryl tries to switch off a few times but can’t. It’s enough to make him wonder if he’ll never be able to do it again.

Spring comes, and brings with it Aaron and Paul fresh from LA. Daryl is overjoyed; they came back, and from their conversations with one another they plan on staying back.

God I miss being here,” Aaron says, sprawled out in bed on his back. He’s shiny with sweat and panting.

Paul is on his back next to him, limbs askew and mouth open staring at the ceiling. He looks about how Daryl feels after watching the two of them this time. After Daryl’s winter alone he’s given up any pretense of trying to leave when they make love; if that makes him creepy then so fucking be it. He’s dead after all; and Aaron still wears that broken key around his neck.

“I don’t know if it’s the mountain air or what,” Aaron continues, “I just feel so much more…present? Inspired?”

“Uh huh,” Paul is able to get out. His eyes are dazed and faraway.

“I just now figured out how to solve that plot point I won’t tell the details of because of your spoiler aversion…”

“Oh,” Paul says. His neck and shoulders are covered in love bites and there’s a mix of his and Aaron’s come streaked across his abdominal muscles.

“I hope you get that job with Kirkman Studios,” Aaron continues, “We could stay here all the time; the driving distance is the same to here as it is from Atlanta. I think you have a good shot; Madison was raving about you to anyone who would listen. Begged me to move out to LA so she could keep you. It’s all about who you know, and she has so many connections with the film industry here.”

“Uh huh,” Paul says.

“It’s such a perfect fit for you,” Aaron enthuses, “I know it’s not as stable as working for the university system but lord knows you won’t be bored. I’m hungry, do you want something to eat?”

“Ok,” Paul says. Aaron kisses him on the cheek and staggers out of bed.

“Kirkman Studios?” Daryl mutters, “Like, movie studios? In Georgia?”

He’s not expecting an answer, just talking out loud. So when Paul says, “Television studio” in a dreamy and dazed voice Daryl snaps to attention.

Daryl stares at him and starts to ask the typical question, the one he always does in this situation. Paul, can you hear me? Then he stops himself. It’s a stupid fucking question, he has ample proof that Paul can hear him. The issue is that the other man doesn’t realize or acknowledge this fact. Daryl remembers reading something in a book, either over Aaron’s shoulder or years ago from one of the hikers on the trail. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

He thinks of what Paul said to Aaron when he came back and said yes, he wanted to try a relationship with him.

I pretend so hard sometimes that some things don’t matter to me that I start believing my own bullshit.

Daryl remembers again being hit with Paul’s memories during that one visit…fuck, was it three years ago? At the time his attention had been focused on the last two—Hershel kicking Paul out of his house, Aaron lashing out at him.

John! John! Where are you?

John wouldn’t have left me without saying goodbye.

Pretend so hard I start believing my own bullshit.

Daryl thinks of Maria Rovia, of how the article on her said she came from an entire family of distinguished mediums, that ever since she was a little girl she could talk to them. He wonders for the first time just how many ghosts Paul has pretended not to see or hear over the years, not just his brother or Daryl himself. Wonders if Paul can stop pretending even if he wants to. He goes back over every time Paul has responded to him, and it’s almost always like he thinks he’s responding to something a living person has said. Notable exceptions being when he was asleep or high out of his mind.

Fuck off, ghost.

Daryl remembers how he reacted, getting angry and shouting at him, how after that it was like a wall slamming down. Maybe the answer wasn’t to make a big fucking deal, trigger the other man’s force field of bullshit. Maybe he needed to come at it sideways, sneak in. Not draw attention to himself.

“Television,” Daryl repeats casually.

“Yeah,” Paul says. His eyes slip all the way closed.

“What…” Daryl asks, trembling all over with excitement, “What would you do?”

“Production coordinator,” Paul replies, “Or…assistant production coordinator…”

“Fuck’s that?” Daryl blurts out.

“Mmmm,” Paul mumbles sleepily. “Basically make sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be and has what they need.”

“And you’d stay up here?”

“Uh huh,” Paul says. His breathing is slowing down, “They film the show near Cumming…”

“They got TV and movie studios in Georgia? Why the fuck did you two hafta go to LA, then?”

“They’re dumb assholes,” Paul slurs.

“Who are dumb assholes?”

Daryl looks up with a start, Aaron has returned. Stark naked and with a plate of cheese, crackers, and fruit balanced in one hand and a towel over the other arm. Daryl thinks this may be the first time he’s an unwelcome sight.

“Mmmm,” Paul mumbles sleepily. Aaron grins the same goofy smile as when they first started sleeping together. He sets the food down on the nightstand before he starts wiping Paul clean. Paul’s eyes open a fraction, just a hint of gray-green. His lips curve into a faint smile. “Love you,” he says.

“Love you too,” Aaron says, smiling his goofy smile again. Paul answers with a snore, he’s out. Aaron is awake for awhile longer, snacking and fiddling around on his phone before he clicks the light off and goes to sleep as well.

Daryl listens to them as their breathing syncs up, the occasional muffled sleep talk and shifting on the mattress. He doesn't move until after dawn, going over what just happened again and again.

Chapter Text

The next time Aaron and Paul come to the cabin they are tailed by a small moving van. Despite its size it isn’t even halfway full; Paul apparently doesn’t have much in the way of possessions. From their conversation while unpacking Daryl is able to glean that another chunk of Paul’s shit was left in Aaron’s Atlanta apartment but this is most of it.

He’s gonna stay, Daryl thinks in a happy daze, they both are, not for a weekend here or there but most of the time.

“Guess you got that job,” Daryl says with a grin, “Fucking TV studio. Don’t that just beat all.”

The movers finish unloading in less than two hours then it’s just the three of them. Two living men and one ghost; and Daryl thinks he’s almost as happy as it is possible for him to be. The only thing that mars the occasion is that he can’t help with the unpacking, he hates feeling useless. All he can do is watch as the two men pull out Paul’s scant possessions out of the boxes and start finding places in the cabin for them.

The first thing Paul unpacks is an honest-to-god record player. It looks brand new, and  Daryl can’t believe they actually still make these things. The future comes with fucking machines that fit in the palm of your hand and can hold thousands of songs; he can’t figure out why anyone would want a bulky record player.

“I can hook up my iPod,” Aaron says, echoing Daryl’s thoughts.

“These sound better,” Paul replies as he connect to the speakers of Aaron’s sound system.

“I forget you can be a hipster douche about some things,” Aaron says.

“Says the man who hoards books like some kind of nerdy dragon,” Paul says with a smirk, “You’d sleep on a pile of them if I let you get away with it.”

“Exactly,” Aaron says, “Nerd. You’re a hipster douche who hoards vinyl, there’s a difference.”

Paul flips him off cheerfully before going to another box that contains some of said vinyl hoard. He flips through them before emerging with one that Daryl recognizes—all white except for “The Beatles” printed center and to the right. As Paul lowers the needle on the record Daryl remembers being…fuck, twenty-three? Watching the scratchy black and white footage on TV, Ed Sullivan’s voice drowned out by screams when he introduced them. He remembers Merle disbelieving that all those girls were creaming themselves over four guys with faggy hair and equally faggy English accents and it was a sign the country was going to hell sure as shit.

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night…” Paul sings along, “take these broken wings and learn to fly…all your life…you were only waiting for this moment to arise—”

It doesn’t take the two men long to unpack and find places for Paul’s shit. There’s an entire new shelf for his records, his clothes fit nicely in the wardrobe next to Aaron’s, and after some rearranging spots are found for most of his books on the shelves downstairs. Then the items that interest Daryl the most--pictures. Aaron doesn’t have many of his own—at least not here, Daryl supposes more could be in the Atlanta apartment. The one of him and Eric that he brought on his first visit is still on the mantel and over the years a few more have been added. None of him as a kid, or his family.

Paul has more, a lot more. Pictures of him with Maggie on the farm from when they were teenagers all the way up to what looks like could’ve been taken yesterday. Pictures of Hershel the younger as a fat-cheeked newborn and a laughing toddler. A particularly hilarious one of when Hershel was introduced to his baby sister for the first time. Their parents are sitting on the hospital bed smiling, Maggie holding Juniper and Glenn holding Hershel who is screaming and trying to escape, arms outstretched and face screwed up. A picture of two boys who look to be about eight or so in front of Cinderella’s castle; arms slung around each other and wearing Mickey Mouse ears. They’re identical down to the sly expressions on their faces that make Daryl thinks raising them must’ve been a danged job.

“Pop quiz, Aaron,” Paul says as he hangs the picture on the wall.

“Yeah?” Aaron says, looking up from where he’s hanging a picture of all the GREATMS including Paul dressed up and looking impossibly young.

Paul taps the glass of the picture, “Can you tell which one is me?”

Aaron ambles over, brow wrinkled in thought as he studies the photo. Daryl does the same, muttering, “Asshole. I bet even you can’t tell.” As soon as he says it Daryl realizes with a start that the boy on the left is Paul. Daryl can’t say how he knows this, but he is certain. A certainty that is strengthened when Aaron grins and taps the boy on the left.

Paul laughs, “Lucky guess.”

“Nope,” Aaron says, grinning wider, “I can just tell. Show me some more, I’ll prove it.”

“I don’t have any others with the two of us together,” Paul says sadly, “Lots of stuff like that got lost over the years. I’m lucky to still have this one.”

Aaron doesn’t say anything, just puts an arm around Paul and kisses his cheek, holding him for a minute. The two men go back to work but Daryl lingers over the photograph, studying the two boys and trying to work out how he knew which one is Paul.

Paul ain’t the one you recognized, Darlina.

“Oh,” Daryl whispers to Merle’s memory. He remembers what Paul said about his twin, that even if he was only a few minutes older he acted like the big brother. It’s subtle but the boy on the right is standing slightly forward, holding Paul just a little tighter. Protective. After a long time Daryl drops his eyes and drifts over to see what Aaron and Paul are up to, to look at any new treasures that have been unearthed.

*******************************************

Aaron is dicking around on Facebook instead of writing when the chat box flashes that he has a message from Paul Rovia.

Hey pal. You busy?

“Lazy,” Daryl mutters. Paul is downstairs, where he has a work space set up in one of the guest rooms. Daryl’s still not exactly sure what his new job entails; just that the hours vary wildly from week to week. Most days he’s back by six, but some he’s not back until close to midnight and still others he works from home.

Aaron smiles and rolls his eyes affectionately when he sees Paul’s message before typing out:

We’re in the same house, you could come up and see for yourself. :)

The little message informs them that Paul Rovia is typing.

I didn’t want to interrupt if you were in the zone.

Not in the zone unfortunately. Ready for lunch?

No, I’ve been dealing with stupid people all morning. Hitting the punching bag isn’t working any more, I need you to fuck me calm. We can eat after.

Aaron sits up straight in his chair, swallowing hard and drawing in a sharp breath.

I can do that. Now?

Yeah, I’m coming up.

Aaron jumps out of his chair and meets Paul as he emerges from downstairs. There’s thunder on his face, something has gotten him all het up. Before Aaron can say anything Paul grabs him by the front of his shirt and pulls him in for a kiss. It’s aggressive, Daryl gets a flash of his teeth as he bites Aaron’s lips. When he’s finished Aaron looks dazed.

“Come on, hurry up,” Paul says, making a beeline for the stairs to the loft. Aaron scurries after him and Daryl follows close behind. Even if he were still pretending to give them privacy he thinks he would’ve been dragged along anyway. Whatever mood Paul’s it’s enough to trap Daryl like an animal in a snare.

The two living men strip down quickly. Daryl takes a moment to stare at Aaron’s body and marvel at the muscle he’s put on in the past year; Paul is serious about working out and has gotten Aaron into it as well. They’ve gone so far as to clear out a space downstairs so they have room for Paul to teach Aaron his ninja moves. Daryl likes watching them play fight almost as much as he likes watching them fuck; Paul moves like a dancer, flexible and elegant. Aaron does his best but has too much arm and leg; he ends up flat on his back on the mat almost every session, Paul standing over him grinning.

Once they’re both naked Paul climbs into the bed and pulls Aaron in with him. Daryl hovers at the edge of the bed watching. He feels hot and shimmery all over, that delightful tension building in his center and branching out through the rest of him.

“How do you want it?” Aaron asks, grabbing the lube from the nightstand. No rubbers, not anymore. Daryl’s not sure exactly when they stopped using them; during LA, he thinks.

“Like this,” Paul says, rolling onto his back and pulling his knees to his chest as Aaron kneels between his legs.

They get right down to it, Paul’s in no mood for foreplay or teasing. Aaron preps him in a perfunctory manner while Paul strokes himself, one hand toying with his nipple. Daryl shimmers again; remembering vividly the one time he joined them, how Aaron’s fingers felt. He leans over Aaron’s shoulder so he can look down at Paul spread out on the bed. He doesn’t normally get this close but the pull is particularly strong today as is the temptation to touch. Especially when Aaron grips Paul’s thighs and rolls his hips; the memory of feeling Aaron slide into him flashing through Daryl so vividly he cries out.

“Oh,” Paul gasps as Aaron starts to move, “There. Right there. Just like that…Aaron—“ Paul’s head rolls back against the pillow, neck arched and mouth open. He slides one hand up Aaron’s stomach and chest, the other gripping at his thigh.

Daryl leans in as close as he dares, peering over Aaron’s shoulder at the man beneath him. It’s a glorious sight; one that puts the view from the big picture windows to shame. Paul’s long hair fanning across the sheets, the red flush from his chest up his neck to his lips, the muscles of his arms flexing, the way he tosses his head from from side to side when Aaron starts really fucking him. Daryl looks down, watching Aaron’s dick slide in and out as Paul moans for more, harder, and faster. Pressed this close Daryl can imagine what his own dick would look like if he were alive and it was him making Paul squirm and moan beneath him. The thought sends a frisson of excitement that has Daryl almost switching off, staggering a little and resting his forehead against Aaron’s shoulder.

“Oh my christ,” Aaron says, surging forward and bending down to kiss Paul, bracing himself against the mattress with his hands on either side of the other man’s face. Daryl recovers enough of himself to force himself backward on the bed, propped up on his elbows and staring at the muscles of Aaron’s backside rippling as he gives it to Paul again and again.

When it’s over the two living men lie panting in each other’s arms while Daryl tries to collect himself, put his thoughts in order. Post orgasm is the second best time to try and talk to Paul, when the other man is feeling dreamy and sleepy and not all there. It’s a narrow window of opportunity most of the time, the few minutes when his defenses are low before he dozes off. Today is a wash, Paul strokes Aaron’s curls for a bit before forcing himself up and out of bed.

“Ok,” he says, “I think I’m zen enough now to make a few more phone calls. Thanks, pal.” He gives Aaron a smack on the ass before he leaves, which makes Aaron and Daryl both giggle.

“Don’t think I’m getting any more writing done today,” Aaron says.

“‘Any more’?” Daryl snorts, “You been dicking around all mornin’, don’t think you wrote more’n ten words.” One thing Daryl is learning is that Aaron doesn’t get much writing done on days Paul works from home. Even when the other man isn’t dragging him upstairs for a little afternoon delight he’s a distraction. 

They’ve been living up here full time only for a few wonderful months. Their day-to-day life is quieter than the blazing heat of their early days together when they couldn’t keep their hands off each other but Daryl is far from bored by it. He feels like he gets the best of both worlds now—when Paul is at work he has Aaron to himself just like before. Aaron even starts talking to him again, something he doesn’t do when Paul is home. Aaron is very apologetic about this and Daryl wishes he could assure him that he understands. If Daryl was in Aaron’s shoes—alive and had an equally alive Paul Rovia to touch and kiss and talk with—he’d forget a ghost he couldn’t even hear. But it’s just like old times, Daryl reading over Aaron’s shoulder while he writes. Currently he’s working on the kid’s book he talked about ages ago, the one about Ezekiel. This is something that has him terrified; he explains to Daryl he’s never written for younger readers or fantasy.

In the evenings Paul comes home, and they go for a hike in the valley in silence before making dinner. Paul cooks because Aaron is terrible at anything more complicated than Ramen noodles. He’s good at chopping vegetables and washing up, though. While they prepare dinner Paul talks about his day; working for TV shows isn’t as exciting as Daryl would’ve thought. Paul seems to spend most of his time scheduling folks and calling to argue with people who try to make changes to said schedule. Occasionally he has some interesting stories—one of the lead actors is a real prick to the crew and Paul has to smooth things over. After dinner they curl up on the couch to watch TV or read; they rarely fuck on work nights and when they do it’s nothing fancy. Quick jerk session in the shower or making out on the couch getting a little too heated. Most evenings they’re content to just be with each other. Paul likes to rest his head in Aaron’s lap, the other man massaging his scalp. Half the time Paul falls asleep midway through whatever they’re watching; sometimes when he gets in late and it happens Aaron will just put a blanket over him and let him sleep on the couch.

Those nights on the couch are the best times to try and talk to him. Usually after sleeping for a few hours he starts to stir, eventually waking up and stumbling upstairs to join Aaron in bed. Right in there is a sweet spot where he’s not quite asleep and not quite awake and will have actual conversations with Daryl. It’s frustrating as all hell—soon as Daryl mentions anything relating to ghosts or asks for Paul to give messages to Aaron he shuts down; waking up all the way and staggering off to bed. Paul is stubbornly, pathologically unable to acknowledge Daryl’s presence. He’ll check the fuse box when Daryl flickers the lights or switches on the TV; and if he can find nothing wrong will ask Aaron to call an electrician. It’s maddening, but Daryl can be patient. He has all the time in the world and nothing better to do.

*******************************************

At the end of June something happens that Daryl can’t believe, even though it’s all over the news as well as on Facebook when Aaron and Paul log in.

The U.S. Supreme Court redefined the institution of marriage today to include same-sex couples, enshrining in law a monumental change that was unthinkable just a few decades ago…

…Married same-sex couples in Georgia can now file joint state tax returns; they no longer need to carry legal documentation that allows them to make emergency medical decisions for a suddenly incapacitated spouse; it will be easier for such couples to adopt children; under the Family and Medical Leave Act, they may now take time off from work to care for a spouse…

…Want to get married right now? Head down to the Fulton County courthouse to participate in the mass wedding ceremony at 1 p.m. in the Assembly Hall of the Fulton County Government Center at 141 Pryor Street SW, Atlanta, GA 30303…

Sasha calls Paul that evening in tears over the news, and asks if he and Aaron will come down to the mass wedding.

“I understand if you don’t,” she says in between sobs, “I know me and Rosita had a ceremony already, we’re just going to fill out the paperwork so that it’s legal now…”

“Of course we’re coming!” Paul says, grinning from ear to ear, “Right, pal?”

“Fuck yeah,” Aaron says, “to party if nothing else. We’ll be there in the morning.”

When she hangs up Aaron looks thoughtful, “The courthouse thing sounds special, but I think we should get married here. Not in Blue Ridge, but in the cabin. We can keep it small since we have so much overlap on who we’ll invite.”

Paul looks up from where he’s been scrolling through Facebook on his phone and blinks at Aaron, “Uh, being a little presumptuous there, pal.”

“What?” Aaron says, “Do you want to do a big thing? We could rent one of those tents if we want to invite more people.”

Paul stares at him, “Yeah, you’re getting colder.”

“Would you rather do it at a courthouse? Ok, but I’d still like to have our friends up for a party even if there’s no ceremony—

“Aaron,” Paul says, “Are you even going to ask me?”

“Ask you what—” Aaron starts to say, forehead wrinkled in confusion before his eyes go wide and he turns bright red, “Oh. Oh.

Paul has one eyebrow raised and Daryl can tell it’s taking everything he has not to laugh in Aaron’s face, “Like I said, pal. Presumptuous.”

“I…I guess I just…I assumed…I mean, you want to, right?”

“Yeah, but a guy does like to be asked.”

“Oh,” Aaron says, flustered, “Will you marry me?”

“Of course,” Paul says, going back to his perusal of Facebook, “I think you’re right about doing it up here.”

Aaron is grinning the biggest, stupidest grin Daryl’s ever seen him make. “Ok. Cool. When? We could do it this year, later in the summer or fall before we go back to Atlanta…or wait until next year…”

Paul’s eyes get that faraway look they sometimes have when Daryl talks to him. He raises his hand to his chest, curling his fingers at a space below and to the right of his heart. “This fall,” he says firmly, “And we definitely do it here. This is our place, you know? Besides,” he winks at Aaron, “this way Daryl can come.”

Aaron’s smile falters a little, “I hope it doesn’t bother him, having this many people.”

“It don’t,” Daryl says hoarsely. Paul is just joking when he says things like that, Daryl knows it. It doesn’t change the fact that he is beyond grateful that he can watch the two of them get married. That gratitude is mixed up with a fair bit of wistfulness as well as jealousy—he’d like to be there and be seen. Like to stand up and tell the two of them how much he loves them and always will, how it breaks his heart and heals it to see them together. How if Daryl can’t be with either one of them then he’s glad they’re with each other. That there’s not one man in the world he considers good enough for Aaron but Paul and vice versa. That they deserve each other, in the best sense of the word deserve. That it was worth dying and everything that came with it just to know them.

Maybe he’ll say it anyway. He knows that Paul can hear him, even if he pretends he can’t.

“Can I change my Facebook relationship status?” Aaron asks playfully.

“Sure, just know that I beat you to it,” Paul says, grinning up at him.

He’s not kidding; and five minutes later his phone erupts and Daryl sees a picture of Tara wearing white sunglasses with red licorice rope dangling from her mouth like a cigarette.

Oh my god!” Tara squeals when Paul answers. He hits the button for speaker phone so that Aaron can listen in.

“Hello to you too,” Paul replies, blushing a little as she demands details. She’s disappointed at how “unromantic” Aaron’s proposal was but cheers up when Paul informs him they’re not doing it at the mass wedding and instead doing at the cabin and she is of course invited.

“Who’s going to be your best man?” Tara demands, “I called dibs over two years ago, just saying.”

“Tara, we weren’t even together two years ago,” Paul says affectionately.

“Oh please, everyone and their brother knew it was inevitable after LA. Literally, I think Tyrese said something to Sasha about it. It just took you two useless homos a long time to get your act together. Anyways, dibs! I’ll fight Maggie if I have to, I’ve never gotten to be the best maid of honor.”

“I don’t think we’re going to do that sort of thing,” Paul says, “Fuck, I don’t even know how we’re doing it. Just up here at the cabin, having a big party with our friends and our ghost.”

“Oh, have you finally accepted that Daryl is really real and you should be nice to him?”

“No, he hasn’t,” Daryl grumbles, “I love ‘im but you’re still my favorite outta all Aaron’s friends.”

“I’m nice to him,” Paul says, “He’s the one who keeps helping Aaron cheat at ping-pong.”

“Got me there,” Daryl says. When Aaron and Paul play ping-pong Daryl can’t help himself from fucking with the ball from time to time. Paul just gets so pissy and it’s hilarious, like when a cat misses a jump and tries to pretend like it never happened. “Acknowledge me, fuckhead,” Daryl says, “I promise to never fuck with the ball again if you just admit to yourself you hear me.”

“He’s pulling your pigtails,” Tara says primly, “And I don’t believe you when you say you’re nice to him.”

“Whatever,” Paul says, “Anyhow, marriage details will be released as soon as we decide what to do.”

*****************************************

Paul and Aaron get married on October 10, in a small ceremony at the cabin. It’s not lost on Daryl that it’s only a few days shy of the thirty-sixth anniversary of the night he was murdered for being a queer. Two men Daryl loves are getting married on the ridge overlooking the spot his bones have lain for going on four decades. Any afterlife he could have pales in comparison to this. 

The week leading up to the wedding gives Daryl deja vu to the week leading up to two Christmases ago when Aaron bounced around in a fit of nerves over asking Paul to be his boyfriend. What’s tripping him up is his vows—he types them out then deletes them half a dozen times.

“When we first started dating you said someone told you that you’re not an easy guy to love. At first all I could think was how wrong they were—you’re the easiest guy in the world to love. Easy because of your kindness, your generous spirit, how you always think of others before yourself, how your sense of humor is as weird as mine, how you get me the way no else ever has.

“Then I thought maybe they were right—just not how they probably meant it. Sometimes it was hard to love you because of how you act like you don’t matter. How you hide the way you really feel because you think no one will understand. How sometimes you don’t believe someone else could love you. How you flinched whenever I said the words the first few months we were dating…”

“Fuck,” Aaron mutters, highlighting what he’s just written then deleting it, “Daryl, I can’t say that in front of everyone, I’ll start bawling.”

“No fucking kidding,” Daryl mutters. He’s feeling a little wobbly himself.

“Also,” Aaron whispers, “should I mention Eric? I don’t…I want it to be about us, you know? But Eric…he’s still part of me ”

Daryl can’t think of how to answer that question even if Aaron could hear him. To his surprise Paul is the one who eventually brings up Eric a few nights before the ceremony. It’s their last night alone for a few days; the GREATMS are coming in the morning for some early celebrating. The three of them are sitting in the rockers on the deck looking out over the valley as the sun sets. The two living men have been discussing the upcoming visit and the reason for it, as well as a detailed “plan of attack” for getting Tara to meet their friend Denise.

During a pause in the conversation Paul abruptly says, “I stopped to see Eric when I visited Maggie last weekend.”

Aaron stares at him, startled. Paul is looking straight ahead, face a cool mask. “Oh,” Aaron says in a rough voice, “I…I haven’t actually been to his grave in…in a long time,” he swallows, “He’s not there.”

Paul closes his eyes, “I don’t think so either, but…but I wanted to talk to him.”

“About what?” Aaron says in that rough voice.

“You, of course,” Paul says wryly, “I wanted to say…fuck, I don’t know. Sorry that I get to marry you and he didn’t. Thank him for not let me slip away after college. Promise I’d do my best to make you happy. I just…I thought I’d mention it. You haven’t said anything, but…but I know you’ve been thinking about him.”

Aaron runs a hand over his face and sighs, “I have, yeah.”

“You know you can talk to me about it,” Paul says, “I…I never want you to think I want you to forget him—“

“You never do,” Aaron whispers.

Paul nods, still not meeting Aaron’s eyes, “Ok. Just…I never want you to feel like you can’t talk about him because of me. I know…I know it’s weird for you, and he’s the one you thought you’d be spending the rest of your life with.”

Aaron hesitates, then carefully says, “Do you remember what you said to me the first time you came up here? How grief turns you into someone new?” Paul nods, and Aaron continues, “I don’t…I’ve been thinking a lot about the past. When we were in school. Stupid what-if scenarios. Like, what if he and I never met? Would you and I…would we have gotten together back then?”

“I can answer that one, pal,” Paul says quickly, “You wouldn’t have wanted to date college me; if you tried you would’ve ended up hating me. I’d have ruthlessly seduced you and moved on when I realized what a great guy you were.”

“Or I would’ve said some dumb Dad Friend thing because I didn’t get why you were the way you were,” Aaron says quietly, “Something that really hurt you.”

“Oh,” Paul whispers, “I suppose you could’ve.”

“I’ve also been thinking about…I mean, we haven’t even been dating two years and we’re already getting married. I feel like I should be more hesitant, but I’m not. Life’s…there’s not guarantees and I know now what really matters to me, and what’s bullshit. Those are the sorts of things I’ve been thinking about. I mean, I wouldn’t trade those years with Eric for anything, even if I knew how it would end. He…he made me who I am; and part of who I am is a guy capable of loving you like you deserve.”

Paul says nothing, although Daryl can see his throat working and that his eyes are bright. He blows out an unsteady breath and reaches out to take Aaron’s hand. Daryl studies their linked hands, wishing he could join in, although it wouldn’t be appropriate even if he were still alive.

*******************************************

The ceremony is in the afternoon when it’s warm enough to be outside. It’s a simple affair, not much in the way of decorations. The scenery is more than enough, fall in the Blue Ridge mountains is a stunning riot of yellows and oranges and reds against the distant blue and purple mountains. Today in particular is beautiful—clear skies and crisp weather.

Two dozen or so guests attend; some Daryl knows, some he knows even if he hasn’t met yet, and some he’s only heard of in passing. The GREATMS and their little ones have been at the cabin for the past two days celebrating, the rest of the guests are a mix of friends and colleagues, and Daryl watches their arrival with interest. He hasn’t had this many people this close to his grave since the construction crew built the cabin five years ago; and the experiences are radically different. Everyone who comes is here not for a job but because, like Daryl, they love Aaron and Paul. It makes Daryl feel weirdly included in the festivities, that he has common purpose with all these living people.

The first to arrive are the rest of the Greene family—Maggie’s father Hershel, her stepmother Anette, and her little sister Beth. With them is a small, elderly Asian woman that Daryl knows must be Mama Rhee, in town early for Juniper’s first birthday and a welcome addition to the guest list. Aaron in particular is pleased to see her, greeting her in Korean and taking her by the arm himself to show her the cabin.

More guests arrive, pulling their cars to the side of the dirt road that leads up to the cabin. A young, sweet-faced woman with wavy blonde hair Daryl gathers is their friend Denise, an assumption that is confirmed when Aaron practically shoves her at Tara. Paul gives him a look and mouths “subtle.” Not long after Daryl is delighted to see his old friend Carol arrive with Ezekiel; the latter of which will be officiating the ceremony. She’s dressed in blue, her silver hair grown out shoulder length, and sports a massive rock on her ring finger.

The next guests are the most interesting—a couple that consists of stunning dark-skinned black woman with long dreadlocks down to her waist and her husband, a lean, handsome guy with curls and a gunslinger’s squint. Daryl likes them both as soon as he sees them, something about the way his cool blue eyes warm up when they look at his wife and the soft, pretty way she smiles back. With them is a college-aged boy who is a spitting image of his father down to the gunslinger’s swagger. The kid’s date is someone Daryl recognizes from Paul’s Facebook—Enid, his former student worker back when he was at the university. 

When Aaron sees them he blushes scarlet and looks a little flustered, “Michonne,” he says, shaking her hand first then her husband’s and her stepson “Rick. Carl.” He gives Enid an actual hug before the kids go off to find Paul. Aaron turns back to Michonne quickly, looking almost star struck, “I’m so honored you came.”

“Of course we did,” she says, giving him that warm, pretty smile, “You’re still my favorite student. I’m so happy for you.”

Aaron shuffles his feet and looks even more flustered at this praise, “Let me introduce you to people. Andrea should be on her way.”

“She texted us, said she’s running behind,” Rick says as Aaron leads them away.

More guests arrive; including a car full of Paul’s coworkers that are still very much a mystery to Daryl. He’s heard their names when Paul discusses his day with Aaron but Daryl hasn’t learned their faces quite yet. Jerry—a huge guy whose ethnicity Daryl can’t tell, Hawaiian or some type of Indian maybe; Eduardo, a stupidly handsome Mexican guy; Diane, a tall white woman with coppery hair; and Alden, a white kid who looks about Carl and Enid’s age.

“Dude,” Jerry says to Paul as he looks out at the spectacular views of the valley, “I thought you were nuts for commuting, but I get it now.”

“Yeah, it doesn’t suck,” Paul says with a grin, “Usually by the time I get home all the glorious nature has chilled me out enough so I no longer feel like murdering Simon.”

“I don’t believe you,” Eduardo says, equally impressed by the view, “No one stops wanting to murder Simon.”

“Well, it usually returns when the alarm goes off the next morning,” Paul says with a grin.

“Are, uh,” Alden stammers as he catches sight of Rosita laughing at something Glenn is saying. She’s wearing a backless dress and even Daryl’s dead, gay ass has to stare for a second, “Are any of the ladies here single?”

“I think the only single ladies tonight are lesbians,” Paul says.

“Really?” Diane says, perking up.

“Two single lesbians that Aaron and I have wanted to hook up since before he and I started dating,” Paul says, “Don’t ruin this for us.”

“Not like I have time to date during the middle of filming season anyway,” Diane says with a sigh.

Daryl bounces from guest to guest, feeling a little punchy and almost drunk, overstimulated by so many living people that aren’t complete assholes so close to his bones. Michonne’s husband Rick even takes a short stroll down the ridge, coming even closer to Daryl’s grave. He remembers ages ago, Aaron and Paul talking about “Officer Rick” and realizes they weren’t joking, this guy is definitely a cop. Daryl can just by the way he walks and the way scans the area around him, and for a brief instant is irrationally paranoid that Rick’s assessing blue eyes will spot something odd about earth near his grave. Rick doesn’t; after a few minutes just enjoying nature Rick walks back toward the cabin. Daryl feels oddly disappointed even though seconds ago he was afraid Rick would find what was left of his body. He can’t explain why, but he feels a wistful ache as he follows Rick back to where the rest of the guests are milling around. Daryl, still feeling that wistful ache, goes searching for Aaron and finds him inside the cabin talking with Glenn.

“Hey bro,” Glenn says, “I gotta warn you—I talked to Jesus and he said Hershel is on the prowl giving out fatherly bits of wisdom.”

Aaron pales, “Oh my god. Glenn, please protect me—“

“Sorry,” Glenn says with a shrug, “I got the same thing when Maggie and I were married. He’s unstoppable.”

“You actually have a good relationship with your father,” Aaron pleads, “I can’t deal with Daddy issues today on top of everything else.”

“There, there,” Glenn says, giving Aaron’s shoulder a pat, “Jesus only cried a little afterward and his Daddy Issues are pretty bad too.”

Aaron’s able to avoid Hershel until a few minutes before the ceremony is meant to start. He makes the mistake of going to the bathroom before and is cornered by the old man when he comes out. The cabin is deserted; everyone is outside taking their seats.

“Aaron?” Hershel says, “Son, do you mind if I have a few words with you?”

“Of course,” Aaron says, looking like he’d rather swallow glass, “I mean, no, of course I don’t mind.”

Hershel clears his throat, “I won’t take up too much of your time, there’s just a few things I wanted to say since I’m the closest thing Paul has to a father,” he looks sad then, “Even if I didn’t always do the best job of it. My biggest regret since I quit drinking was that I didn’t give him another chance when he was a boy, or try to understand him.”

Aaron looks uncomfortable, “We’ve talked about that. He doesn’t hold it against you, not at all.”

“He doesn’t have to, I hold it against myself. It was the wrong thing to do, unchristian and foolish,” Hershel smiles sadly, “I know he thinks it was the incident with the tractor that was the last straw, but it was really Anette saying she’d caught him sleeping in Maggie’s bed. I didn’t believe either one of them when they said he didn’t care for her that way. To be honest I didn’t believe that being gay was a real thing, thought it was just a phase, or he was confused, or…I don’t know. But obviously nature would win in the end, and I had to protect my daughter.” He smiles, “That’s another thing that was foolish of me, thinking Paul was a bad influence on her, when it was the other way around most of the time. If the two of you ever have children and one’s a girl let me warn you now she’ll have you wrapped around her littlest finger.”

A flash of pure terror crosses Aaron’s face, “Oh. We um. We haven’t talked much about having kids. Maybe someday, but…”

“You’d both make wonderful fathers, I can tell by how you are with Hershel and Juni. But that’s another conversation. As I was saying, I didn’t understand the gay thing when Paul was a boy, so I sent him away. Maggie was like to never forgive me for that, if it weren’t for Anette she would’ve stopped talking to me when she left for school. Fortunately by the time Paul came back I’d overcome a lot of my foolishness. I wanted to say I owe a lot of that to you, that first Christmas when you and Eric came to the farm. Even then I could see what sort of man you were, you knew yourself, and even an old fool like me could tell the way you were with him wasn’t a phase. So I thank you for that.”

“Oh,” Aaron says, blinking rapidly, at a loss for words.

“I’ve been in your shoes,” Hershel says, “When I lost Josephine—Maggie’s mother—I didn’t expect to find love again.  Meeting Anette, who was every bit as wonderful if very different—and realizing I could love her just as well, be every bit as happy…well, the contradiction’s something I still haven’t been able to work out. One of God’s mysteries. You understand.”

“Yeah,” Aaron says in a rough voice, “I know. Paul…when we first started dating he says you talked him into it. So thank you too.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Hershel says, eyes twinkling, “But if I had a hand in it then I’m glad. You’re exactly the sort of man I’d want for him. Here, I wanted to give you these, I already gave Paul his.”

He presents Aaron with a simple black box. When Aaron opens it there is a pair of equally simple silver cufflinks, one with “ALR” engraved on it and the other with “PJR”.

As Aaron studies them Hershel says, “I wanted to give you both something that had been in the family, but there just isn’t much. My father pawned a lot of things back in the worst days of his drinking days and I was no better. Only thing left was my grandfather’s watch and I already gave it to Glenn. Even if I didn’t I’m not sure how it would work with two men, if I should’ve given it to Paul or to you…anyway, these are new. Something to pass on to your own children one day, or their husbands. Welcome to the family.”

“Thank you,” Aaron says, sounding numb. He extends his hand Hershel brushes it off, instead choosing to give him a very manly hug.

“Come on, son,” Hershel says, “It’s showtime.”

The ceremony itself is short—Ezekiel gives a brief speech that is still enough for Daryl to finally get why Aaron calls him a character and is writing a kids’ book with him as the star. Then it’s time for the exchange of vows, Ezekiel tells Aaron and Paul to face each other and take hands. When their hands touch Daryl feels an unexpected pull deep inside him. He had been drifting off to the side and without making a conscious decision finds himself standing right between the two men, back to the crowd and facing Ezekiel. Daryl raises his hands instinctually, wanting to cover Aaron and Paul’s both but stops himself, yanking his hands back. He shouldn’t be up here with the two men at all, this is a thousand times more invasive than the times he watches them fuck. He looks over shoulder at the rows of smiling guests—Maggie’s family and the GREATMS up front, behind them the rest of the crowd of smiling people. None of them can see Daryl and they’re not smiling at him, but he still feels something inside him grow warm.

Daryl turns back to where Ezekiel has gotten around to saying, “Now, repeat after me. I, Aaron Lucas Raleigh—“

“I, Aaron Lucas Raleigh,” Aaron parrots back, smiling his goofiest, most lovestruck smile at Paul.

“Take you, Paul James Rovia—“

The rest of the words blur together as Daryl stares at Paul’s face. He’s smiling too, one eyebrow raised, as if he wants to tease Aaron for being a cornball but is enjoying it too much. When it’s Paul’s turn to say his bit Daryl looks at Aaron’s face; the way his eyes glow with happiness when Paul promises to love, honor and support him until death do they part.

Ezekiel pronounces them married and tells them to kiss. Paul’s attention returns to Aaron completely as the other man leans down. When their lips touch Daryl can feel it; the scrape of Aaron’s short beard against his mouth, can feel it as vividly as the night he somehow wound up in Paul’s body. It makes Daryl feel weak and shimmery all over, if he had knees they would buckle. He’s aware of the guests all over again, and for a split second is overwhelmed with the idea that they see him. That if he turned around they would no longer be smiling but staring in confusion at this strange man in a t-shirt and jeans standing up there like he belongs.

“Ladies, gentleman, those falling in neither category,” Ezekiel says, “May I present to you Aaron and Paul, married now in the eyes of the law; both God’s and humanity’s.”

Paul and Aaron turn to face the crowd, still holding hands and blushing at the applause and hollering from their friends. Daryl hasn’t moved; he’s facing them, so close he can almost pretend they’re looking back and their smiles are for him.

“I love you both so much,” Daryl rasps out, “You deserve this, each other. I’m so happy you came here. I wish…” his voice cracks, “I wish things was different. Wish…”

His voice is a mumble, there is no way if he was actually there in the flesh his words would be heard over the shouts and whistles of the assembled wedding guests. Paul’s face changes all the same. His smile flickers, his eyes get their far away look, and a line forms between his eyebrows. He cranes his neck, as though looking for someone in the crowd, eyes flickering back and forth. It only lasts for a matter of seconds because Aaron pulls him in for another kiss. Daryl feels this one; not as vividly as he felt the other but it still leaves him shaken.

The rest of the day passes in a blur. Daryl hears a lot of laughter and an overwhelming amount of conversation. Plates are cleared away by the caterers Aaron hired—food and booze was the only thing he really splurged on—then it’s time for speeches. Glenn gets things going, telling the story of meeting Aaron in college, of Aaron being the best man in Glenn’s own wedding and spending the bachelor party “shepherding a flock of drunk Korean guys around like the world’s tallest and most anxious border collie”. Glenn concludes by thanking Aaron for being a massive gay nerd so that being his best man is not as much of an ordeal.

Tara goes next, telling stories of all the shenanigans she and Paul used to get into, their equally disastrous dating histories. “Only now, having wed a guy like Aaron,” Tara concludes, “Jesus has officially leveled up from ‘disaster gay’ to ‘functional gay’.”

Tables are cleared away to make space for dancing; a microphone and keyboard are set up; and Enid, Paul’s former student, goes to sit at them. “Um,” she says, “Aaron asked me to sing this for a first dance. Told me he picked it out because it was how he felt about Jesus. And because there’s apparently a bet between them about who can make the other cry. Ok. Here goes.”

She takes in a deep breath and starts to play. Aaron and Paul move to the center of the makeshift dance floor. Paul’s hands are on Aaron’s waist and the other man’s arms are draped over his shoulders. It’s a slow dance, and when Enid starts to sing her voice is clear and lovely.

I don't believe in an interventionist God

But I know, darling, that you do

But if I did, I would kneel down and ask Him

Not to intervene when it came to you

Oh, not to touch a hair on your head

Leave you as you are

If he felt he had to direct you,

Then direct you into my arms…

Into my arms, oh lord,

Into my arms, oh lord,

Into my arms…”

Daryl thinks that Aaron might have won their bet. Paul’s face twists, he blinks rapidly, then presses his face against Aaron’s shoulder, holding him tighter. Aaron kisses the top of his head, his own arms tightening.

“And I believe in Love

And I know that you do too

And I believe in some kind of path

That we can walk down, me and you

So keep your candles burning

And make his journey bright and pure

That he will keep returning

Always and evermore…

Into my arms, oh lord,

Into my arms, oh lord,

Into my arms…”

When the song finishes Aaron and Paul stand together for a moment just holding each other, and Daryl is overwhelmed with sorrow that he can’t hold either one of them that way. It’s too much, he has to retreat away from the lights of the wedding, has to drift away into the blue shadows of his woods, has to sit on his grave and stare up at the darkening night sky.

Chapter Text

Aaron and Paul leave the cabin a month after the wedding. Daryl watches them pack up and for one of the few times since his death truly resents being stuck in this valley and feels the call of the outside world. The past month has been hectic for the two men with work shit—Aaron sent in the final draft of his fourth novel off to his publishers and the TV series Paul works for finished filming for the season. The two living men have been running around like chickens with their heads cut off, Paul working late most nights and not having the energy for anything beyond giving Aaron a quick kiss before collapsing in bed. Aaron is no better, he finishes the last rewrites in a feverish bout of productivity, working late into the night, often after Paul has already gone to bed.

During their few moments of downtime Aaron and Paul have been discussing their honeymoon plans. They’ll be traveling for almost a month—visiting Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Traveling in style too; since although it’s easy to forget Aaron is fucking rich. Daryl is privy to the costs since Aaron books most things while Paul is at work, including a few surprises that he tells Daryl about. This will be Paul’s first trip outside of the US and Aaron wants it to be special.

“I wish you could come with us,” Aaron whispers one morning as he’s explaining to Daryl the logistics of visiting Pompeii on a day trip from Rome. “I remember…I remember you saying that you’d never even left Georgia before. I think you’d like Germany in particular; especially the places we’re going in Bavaria.”

“Wish in one hand,” Daryl mutters.

They’ll return from their honeymoon just in time for Christmas at the Greene family farm; then Paul has a job lined up for January and February working on a movie in Atlanta. They won’t be back to the cabin until spring, the thought leaves Daryl feeling hollow and despondent.

The day they leave Paul slams to a halt a few feet from the Jeep, breathing heavily and turning back to the cabin. He stares at it hard, as though trying to memorize everything about it.

Aaron frowns at him, “What’s wrong, pal?”

“Nothing,” Paul says unconvincingly. Aaron frowns at him harder, causing Paul to sigh and continue, “Really, I’m fine. Something must’ve walked over my grave.” He smiles at Aaron and wiggles his eyebrows, “Maybe I’m just sad yet another season has passed without a visit from your sexy ghost.”

“Motherfucker,” Daryl says without heat, “I’m gonna miss you.”

“Bye, Daryl,” Paul says, “This is me being nice to you, per Tara’s recommendation.”

“I know you think he’s not really there,” Aaron says, giving Paul a poke in the side, “But I’m going to miss talking to him. I always do.”

“So do I,” Daryl whispers as he watches the two men climb into the Jeep and set out. He feels hollow and empty when they leave the boundaries of his haunt; it’s like all the color has left the world.

Spring, Daryl reminds himself, they’ll be back in the spring. Maybe sooner if they feel like just a quick visit.

*******************************************

Daryl misses Paul and Aaron horribly. He tries to enjoy his animals and the natural beauty of his valley but it’s impossible for him to care. He realizes that he’s gotten spoiled having them both up here full time. He misses listening to Paul talk to Aaron about his day at work, misses Aaron discussing tricky plot points, misses the afternoon hikes in the valley the three of them take, misses watching TV with them, misses fucking with the ping-pong ball whenever they play a match. Misses the snatches of sleepy conversation he gets out of Paul. Misses the secondhand pleasure he gets when the two of them make love.

Time slows down to a crawl; the last of the leaves fall from the trees, frost appears on the grass, and finally the snows come. Daryl has lost all track of time; he thinks it’s mid January but he’s not certain. Six more weeks at least; possibly longer.

One evening Daryl is drifting through the valley wishing it was summer so there would be some hikers on the trail to fuck with when a feeling of stark terror knifes through him. It is absolutely beyond anything he’s felt since his death; fueled by shit like adrenaline and instinctual fear for his life that no longer applies to him. Terror is followed immediately by a searing pain that starts just below and to the right of his heart and ends all way between his shoulder blades.

Jesus fucking Christ!” Daryl shouts, slamming to a halt. He’s frozen solid and agony burns with every breath even though he doesn’t have to breathe. Just when he thinks that nothing could possibly be worse than this he hears Aaron’s voice pierce through his haze of pain.

Oh fuck, fuck, my arm, fuck, oh my god…” There’s a guttural cry of pain, the mindless agony of an animal in a trap.

Daryl jerks his head to his left; the world tilts crazily and he sees Aaron right there; not two feet away sitting in the driver’s seat of the Jeep. The actual vehicle is gone; the car’s seat rests on the snow of the valley. The memory of the time they spoke in Aaron’s dream all those years ago flashes through Daryl’s mind—the kitchen table sitting in the open air of the woods. Only this is different; this isn’t a dream, Aaron is right there, covered in blood and broken glass, face a mask of agony. Then the world shifts and they’re no longer in the valley.

Daryl looks around him in a daze; he’s sitting down in the passenger seat of the Jeep. Aaron is behind the wheel, there’s blood and glass everywhere, and the driver’s side is crumpled like a tin can. Aaron’s left arm is caught in the mangle of metal, and he pushing uselessly at the metal trying to free himself.

“Aaron,” Daryl gasps, feeling a flair of pain in his chest and forgetting it immediately in his panic. He can smell the coppery scent of blood and can taste it in his mouth, so bright and vivid that he’s stunned senseless. He comes back to himself when Aaron’s right hand flails out and grabs Daryl’s own. Daryl looks down at their linked hands, everything snapping into focus. He can feel Aaron’s hand, feel the rough patch of skin on his fingertips, feels the flair of pain when Aaron squeezes down.

“Fuck, pal,” Aaron whimpers, “this looks…this looks pretty fucking bad…fuck!” His grip tightens painfully on Daryl’s hand again and his head slams back against his seat. His eyes squeeze shut and his lips pull back in a snarl of agony.

Daryl can’t think, all his thoughts get knocked away again. Everything is too bright and happening too fast and Daryl’s panic and shock are too great to wonder where they are or how the fuck he got here. All he knows is that Aaron is hurt, hurt bad, and Daryl can barely move.

“Aaron,” he rasps out, “you need to get something…tie it off…a belt, something…” Daryl’s voice trails off as he becomes aware of the world outside of the Jeep. His thoughts are knocked out of him yet again when he realizes he’s in a place that is nowhere near his valley. He looks out of a shattered windshield and sees an absolute fucking mess. An eight lane highway that is complete chaos; half a dozen vehicles smashed across the pavement. The scene is dominated by an overturned logging truck; its haul of timber scattered across several lanes of traffic. Daryl sees a small car crumpled beneath a massive log and knows there is absolutely no way the people inside are still alive. Daryl spots another vehicle dead in front of him, a pickup truck with bits of wire and scrap metal exploding out of the back. He sees people running too and from the wrecked cars, Good Samaritans checking for survivors.

There’s a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, and he sees an unfamiliar woman with masses of curly hair staring into the car. “His arm’s busted, get help!” Daryl tries to shout but his voice is a barely audible whisper. It’s enough, the woman turns behind her and shouts, “Yumiko! These two are still alive! Tell the dispatcher to hurry! Sir, hold on!” then she’s scrambling away, trying to figure out a way to open the car door.

“Two?” Daryl rasps out.

Aaron lets out a broken noise, “Oh shit, pal…it…it doesn’t hurt as much…fuck, I think that’s bad…”

His grip on Daryl’s hand loosens and he starts gasping for air, whacking the back of his head against the seat again.

“Hey,” Daryl rasps, “They’re getting help…yer gonna be just fine…” he trails off, a horrible realization hitting him. “Aaron,” he croaks out, “Where’s P—“

Aaron’s head rolls toward him, eyes wide and wet in a pain-wracked face, “Paul,” he gasps, “I don’t think we’re gonna make it to dinner, your big sis is gonna be…”

Aaron freezes, voice dying in his throat. His eyes grow even wider as they travel from Daryl’s face to his chest. Aaron is white-faced and despite what he says about his arm not hurting anymore he looks like he’s in agony.

It’s nothing compared to the look of horror that slowly unfolds across his face.

“What,” Daryl asks, “What’re you…” he looks down at his own chest and doesn’t understand what he’s seeing. He’s already reeling in the shock of finding himself somewhere far the fuck away from his grave, of seeing Aaron gravely injured, of seeing that disaster on the road in front of him, of the fact that Aaron can can fucking see and touch him. The sight of a chest that is too small and wearing a soft green sweater instead of the black t-shirt he was murdered in is beyond comprehension in of itself. So it takes him a moment to register in the center of his chest—just down and to the right of his heart—there’s a skinny bit of metal protruding straight out like a fucked up birthday candle. Everything beneath that scrap of metal is covered in blood, now that he sees it realizes he can feel it, tacky and starting to cool against his skin.

“I…” Daryl says, reaching up to touch the metal, thinking vaguely of pulling it out. Before he can Aaron explodes in the seat beside him.

Paul!” he shouts, “Don’t move, don’t touch that…don’t fucking move…”

Daryl blinks at the other man’s face in confusion, mind fuzzy and having trouble thinking. He wants to ask what the hell Aaron’s talking about, to ask where Paul is but no words come out. He glances up and sees a cracked rearview mirror. Daryl hasn’t seen his reflection in thirty-six years and he doesn’t see it now. The face staring back at him is Paul’s; gray-green eyes dazed and unfocused.

Immediately after Daryl meets eyes that aren’t his own in the mirror the world shifts again. He’s back in his valley; the car seat containing Aaron sitting on the snow, only now next to it is the passenger seat containing Paul Rovia. From the outside Daryl can see not only what’s poking out of Paul’s chest but also a foot of bloody scrap metal sticking out the back of Paul’s seat. Daryl lets out an involuntary moan when he realizes in a horrible instant that little bit of metal in Paul’s chest is only part of one that is about three feet long and has gone through him, out his back, and all the way through the car’s seat. Daryl has absolutely no idea how he’s still alive, just that he is. He can see a slow rise and fall of Paul’s chest, can see his eyes blink slowly as he stares out across the valley, eyes unfocused and far away.

Daryl lets another moan and staggers over to Paul, leaning over him. Beside them Aaron is stretched out as far as he can go with his arm trapped in the crumpled metal of the car. There’s not much he can do but grab Paul’s hand and say, “Don’t move, fuck, don’t move. Breathe, ok?”

Paul tilts his head away from Aaron and toward Daryl’s face. His eyes are distant and far away; focusing as they meet Daryl’s own. Paul blinks once in confusion, smiles a dreamy smile, “Hi, Daryl.”

The shock of it is enough to for all of Daryl’s thoughts to scatter away yet again. There was no mistaking it; this isn’t sleepy nearly one-sided exchanges. Daryl feels cold all over; Paul has yet to acknowledge him outside of that minute or two between sleep and wakefulness. He knows that Paul can hear him; but Paul has never acted like he could see him. And Paul definitely sees him.

“Paul?” Aaron’s voice, small and beyond terrified, “What…what did you say?”

“Daryl’s here,” Paul says conversationally. A line forms between his eyes as he studies Daryl’s face, “How did you get here anyway? “You said you couldn’t leave your grave, that’s…that’s miles and miles…”

“What are you…” Aaron’s small, terrified voice again, “Hey, look at me…look at me…

Paul continues staring into Daryl’s eyes, smiling that faint smile, “You look…you look like you’ve seen a ghost…” his voice trails off and he makes a choking noise. Daryl can see flecks of blood against his lips, and that grounds him, provides another moment of clarity. Paul is hurting himself trying to talk to Daryl.

“Don’t…don’t try to talk, ok?” Daryl says, finding his voice a last, “Yer hurt pretty bad. Dunno why I’m here, or how, it don’t matter none. Just…just keep breathing, ok?”

“Oh,” Paul says, voice weak and fading, “thought…thought you were here to take me to the next world.”

The noise Aaron makes when Paul says that is one that Daryl will never, ever, ever forget, even if he haunts his woods for the ten thousand years.

“I ain’t taking you nowhere. Don’t try to talk, alright? You…you’re scaring Aaron.”

“Oh,” Paul says, and because he’s contrary fucker raises his voice, “Pal? Daryl says I’m scaring you, I’m sorry.”

Aaron makes another noise that Daryl is never going to forget, “Paul…just hold on, ok?”

“Do what he says,” Daryl orders. He shifts so he’s sitting next to Paul on he edge of the other man’s seat. There shouldn’t be room for him there but there is. He drapes his left arm loosely over the back of the seat and stretches the right down so he can grip Paul’s other hand.

“Hmmm…” Paul murmurs, “It’s nice to see you. Aaron wasn’t kidding about your arms.”

“Wish I could say the same.”

“You don’t like my arms?” Paul says.

“No, they’re alright,” Daryl rasps, “Just…ain’t nice seeing you like this.”

“Point,” Paul says, “Circumstances could be better, but…I’ve wanted to see you for so long. See the guy that got Aaron all…all…” his voice trails off, “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the next world?”

“Sure as shit don’t,’specially with you,” Daryl says, “Don’t even know if there is one.”

“Can’t you see it? It’s just over there. See?” Paul lets go of Daryl’s hand and gestures vaguely toward the window. The movement exhausts him and his hand falls limply at his side.

Daryl thought he was as scared as it’s possible as a ghost to be so he’s unprepared for that icy chill of terror he feels. Slowly he twists his neck in the direction of Paul’s gesture and sees—

He whips his head back to Paul’s face, shaken so badly he can’t talk at first. He grabs Paul’s hand again and says, “Paul, don’t look at that.”

“Why? It looks nice,” Paul says, “We could go exploring.”

“What about Aaron?” Daryl says, eyes flicking over to the other man. He’s staring at Paul in wide-eyed horror still.

“He’ll come along eventually,” Paul says, “We can scout ahead for him. Pal? Do you mind if I go with Daryl?”

“Paul, please…” Aaron gasps, “C’mon, pal…stay with me…”

Daryl shakes his head, “You heard ‘im. We can’t leave ‘im behind. Not both of us.”

“Oh,” Paul says, “You stay? He was in love with you first, I think. I mean, after Eric and before me. I was jealous about you, when he told me of how he dreamed you. His eyes were all sparkly. Thanks for sharing him. Were you at the wedding? Of course you were, you told me we deserved each other…”

“I’m a fucking ghost, Paul,” Daryl rasps, “It ain’t the same, and you know it. Stop talking like this, ok? And…fucking…stop looking over there.”

“Ok,” Paul says in that distant, dreamy tone. His gaze shifts to Daryl’s face, “Hi.”

“Hi,” Daryl repeats, and tries to smile. Impulsively he leans down and kisses Paul’s temple, the same way he’s seen Aaron do countless times. “I love you,” he says, then, “Both of you.”

“I know, you said so at our wedding,” Paul murmurs, “Aaron…he said he thought you were there…”

Daryl hears voices intruding in on them. Everything is a confused mishmash—the valley is gone, the three of them are cramped in the ruined remains of the car. He sees ghostly figures swarming around, the bright yellow helmets of firefighters, one is leaning over Aaron and asking him if he knows his name and what day it is, one is in the seat behind Paul saying, “Careful, careful, it’s all the way through him…”

“They’re gonna get the jaws of life,” Paul says, “did they have those when you were alive?”

Daryl shakes his head, his world has narrowed down to Paul Rovia’s eyes. Distantly he hears the crumple of metal, and to his amazement the roof the car and doors are peeled aside like the skin of a fruit. More bright yellow fireman helmets are swarming around Aaron; a brace goes around his neck, a needle goes into his other arm. Aaron’s hand is gripping Paul’s tightly and one of the firemen starts prying his fingers loose, “Sir, you have to let him go, we need to get you out…”

Aaron thrashes his head back and forth in protest, struggling against his would-be-rescuer, “No, no, get him out first, please…”

The fireman is yelling for someone to fucking sedate Aaron, more ghostly figures swarm around him. He’s hurting himself worse, and Daryl shouts out, “Aaron!” then lunges for him, grabbing out unthinkingly at. Daryl’s fingers close around Aaron’s wrist before he’s hit with what must be the thousandth wave of shock in the past hour because he can feel it. Really feel the hot, feverish skin and not the ghost of the sensation. Although that shock is nothing compared to what happens next, because Aaron’s eyes meet Daryl’s and…

And Aaron sees him.

Any doubt Daryl has vanishes when he sees Aaron’s lips start to form his name. Daryl is not sure how or if it will last, so he tightens his fingers, feeling Aaron’s erratic pulse beneath the surface of his skin, “Aaron. Yer hurt bad, let them take care of you. I’m here, I won’t let him go nowhere, ok? I’ll kick his ass if he tries.”

Aaron calms down. Lets the rescue workers carefully extract him. Then it’s just Daryl and Paul together. Daryl looks around him; everything has gone dark. It’s just him and Paul, lit up like they’re under a spotlight. He looks down into Paul’s face; the other man is still looking at him with those far away eyes.

“Hear what I said to ‘im?” Daryl rasps, “You ain’t going nowhere. Now keep your mouth shut, ok?”

Of course Paul fucking Rovia doesn’t listen to him even though he’s not trying to pretend he can’t hear Daryl. A faint smile flickers across his face, “I remember that first night we met. I could feel you for miles, as soon as I started walking towards the cabin. You were so pissed off. I could feel it, this energy. Not scary, though. That’s probably why I was able to leave him up there, I knew you’d take care of him, he’d be ok. I don’t think I would’ve trusted anyone else.”

Shut up,” Daryl snaps, “Think I can’t tell what yer gettin’ at? I’m fucking dead, Paul. Even if I wasn’t I…I couldn’t…I couldn’t take your place. Could never measure up.”

“You underestimate yourself,” Paul whispers.

“Not as much as you do,” Daryl replies, “Listen to me…fuck…you leave ‘im and I’ll kick your ass, hear? You leave me and I’ll kick your ass.”

“Don’t know if that’s…up to me,” Paul says.

He does something strange then, raises a hand to his face, cups his mouth then pulls down before he says, “Where’s Aaron?”

“I’m here,” a voice gasps, “I’m right here…”

Daryl turns his head and the world’s gone all crazy again. They’re no longer in the passenger seat of the car, they’re laid out on a stretcher.  Paul’s shirt has been cut away, his chest has been wrapped in gauze and Daryl sees the bit of metal is still in there. Everything around them is black, although weird shadow figures are moving around. One of them replaces the oxygen mask over Paul’s face, Daryl wonders how he didn’t see it before.

Across the blackness lit up as if by a spotlight he sees Aaron. He’s on his own stretcher attended by his own shadow figures. His shirt has been cut off and he’s hooked up to an array of tubes and including one looped around his nose for oxygen. He’s white and clammy, eyes sunken and dark. He’s reaching out for Paul, only for a shadow figure to gently guide his hand back to his stretcher.

“Just hold on,” Aaron says.

“Yeah,” Daryl says, “They’re taking you to the hospital, gonna fix you up.”

Paul’s eyes seem to be looking beyond Daryl. As he watches they slip closed. Around them the shadow figures become agitated, and he hears Aaron’s voice shouting, “What’s happening, no, no, no—“ while one of the shadow figures says to sedate him.

Paul,” Daryl says, gripping at his hands, “Asshole. No, no, you don’t get to—“

Daryl is standing in his woods at night. He looks around wildly, overcome with helplessness. Without thinking he speeds toward the cabin and the dirt road that leads to civilization. He’s not sure what he’s trying to do, just desperate to be wherever Aaron and Paul are. He reaches the end of his range and it’s like he’s surrounded in a fog, can’t see his own hand in front of his face.

“No,” Daryl says, “No, goddamnit!”

His protests make no difference; when the fog clears he’s standing on his grave.

Fuck!” he shouts, and goes charging down the dirt road again, focusing all his will and attention on the path. He’s dead, there are no rules, he was just in the ambulance by Paul’s side so he can fucking leave.

All the logic in the world can’t stop the fog from descending when he reaches the end of his range, doesn’t stop him from finding himself at his grave. No logic in the world can stop him from mindlessly hurling himself down that dirt road again and again, a fucking loop that last for hours. Days. Fuck if he knows.

So he almost doesn’t register when the fog clears and he’s standing not on his grave, but in the corridor of a hospital. He staggers, looking around him wildly, forgetting who he is and why he was trying so desperately to get to this place. It’s almost like coming back after switching off, takes him a minute for everything to clear up.

Doctors and nurses move swiftly through the hall and take no notice of him. Once he’s collected himself Daryl drifts down the hall, searching, until a tugging in his gut makes him look into a certain room. When he does he sees Aaron, lit up like a spotlight the same as when he was in the back of the ambulance. He’s in a fancy bed and machines are hooked up to him, a monitor that shows his heart beating and Daryl stares at it until he’s reassured that the man is alive. Daryl can’t tell just by looking at him, he’s deathly pale, eyes sunken and cheeks hollow. As Daryl drifts closer he sees that his left arm from below his elbow is gone, there’s just a stump wrapped in bandages.

“Fuck,” Daryl whispers, and lays his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. He tries to bundle up all his love and push it along to Aaron. As he stares down at his pale face Aaron’s eyes slowly open. Daryl almost expects the other man to see him again, but he just blinks and lets out a weak moan.

“Aaron?” a familiar voice says quietly, “Hey bro, are you awake?” Daryl sees another hand pressed next to his own against Aaron’s shoulder. He turns his head and sees that Glenn Rhee is sitting by Aaron’s bed, face drawn and pale.

“Glenn,” Aaron says, voice a cracked whisper.

“Hey, bro,” Glenn says, giving his friend a shaky smile, “Good to have you back. How do you feel?”

“Like a truck hit me…” his voice trails off and he becomes aware of his arm. Or lack of arm, rather. He stares at his stump with dawning horror, and as Daryl watches the machine monitoring his heart shows his pulse has jumped.

“Yeah,” Glenn says, “They had to take it off. I’m sorry.”

Aaron stares at the space where his arm used to be, and as Daryl watches the look of horror melts into something else, something scary and blank. “I don’t care if they have to take the other one,” Aaron says, voice dull, “Is Paul dead?”

The question hits Daryl just as hard as the phantom pain from the bit of metal that had impaled Paul to his seat. The second it takes Glenn to reply seems to stretch out like taffy as countless memories of Paul flash before Daryl’s eyes, the last being him saying he didn’t know if it was up to him about leaving.

“No,” Glenn says, although the tone of his voice is such that Daryl feels no relief and neither does Aaron, “He’s in ICU now. Maggie and Tara are there with him.”

“Is he going to die?” Aaron asks. When his friend hesitates Aaron gasps out, “Glenn. Please, just tell me.”

“We don’t know,” Glenn says, “The doctor…the doctors talked to Maggie and they’re doing all they can, but they said it was bad. And uh, to prepare herself.”

Aaron’s head jerks away, breath coming out in ragged gasps. His face tightens into a rictus of pain and tears leak from his eyes.

“Hey,” Glenn says quickly, “hey, listen. He’s still here, and Jesus isn’t going down without a fight. It’s not over.”

Aaron lets out a harsh sob, and another. Glenn grips his remaining hand and says nothing. After a few minutes Aaron is able to collect himself enough to rasp, “I…I want to see him,” he starts to push himself up out of his hospital bed, and when Glenn tries to stop him he gasps out, “Please Glenn, I need to see him.”

“I know, I get it,” Glenn says quickly, “And you will, but you were hurt pretty bad. Just sit back for a minute, let me talk to the nurse.” Aaron collapses against the bed

The nurse is a bag of dicks who tries to tell Glenn that moving Aaron right now isn’t feasible. Glenn’s an easy going guy so Daryl is surprised at how little shit he takes, “Yeah, my friend’s husband might die. That’s not going to happen without him getting a chance to say goodbye.” In the end it takes Glenn calmly and politely pointing out that his friend is a fairly well-known writer with connections in Hollywood and he is fully prepared to contact whoever is in charge of hospital donations for the nurse to agree to take Aaron to Paul.

An orderly helps Aaron into a wheelchair, dragging along the stand that contains the IV lines. Glenn walks on Aaron’s right side and Daryl drifts after them. The hospital seems to go on for miles; they’re pushed in a series of elevators and a maze of corridors. Finally they arrive in ICU. The rooms here are bigger and have massive sliding glass doors that reveal the entire room. Machines are everywhere, beeping and flashing and Daryl sways, overwhelmed feeling the edge of his consciousness grow fuzzy.

They finally reach a door that has a familiar figure outside—Tara Chambler is slumped against the wall with her head bowed. When she raises her head as they approach Daryl can see she’s been crying.

Aaron,” she says, then wipes her eyes and rushes to him with her arms outstretched, stopping short from his wheelchair. Her eyes grow wide and her lips tremble as she takes in his missing arm. She’s able to compose herself, “He’s in there,” she whispers, blinking rapidly, “Maggie’s sitting with him.”

Aaron nods at her, reaching out his good hand. She grabs it and squeezes, trying and failing to smile. When the orderly starts pushing Aaron toward the room she steps aside and says only two guest are allowed in the room a time. Two living guests, at least. Glenn hangs back with Tara while Daryl drifts in after Aaron.

Paul’s hospital bed is bigger and more elaborate than Aaron’s was. He’s hooked up to more machines, including a tube that is between his lips and secured with a bit of tape. It all makes him seem unbearably small and fragile, Aaron lets out a broken noise when he sees him that echoes Daryl’s thoughts pretty well as the orderly pushes him right up to Paul’s bed. Daryl becomes aware of Maggie then, sitting at the side of Paul’s bed with her head bowed. Unlike Tara it’s not because she’s been crying, but because she’s been praying. Her eyes flicked to Aaron’s stump and her face spasms but she straightens and her chin juts out.

“Hey,” she says, “He’s still here, still fighting.”

Aaron’s not even looking at her, his eyes are glued to the still figure on the bed. Aaron grimaces, and lays a shaking hand on Paul’s chest.

“Hey pal,” he says, “I…I’m not going anywhere.”

Daryl would like to say the same, but the room starts fading out. The last thing he sees is Aaron’s head bowed over Paul’s still form.

Then he’s back in his valley with moonlight spilling over him, alone.

Chapter Text

Six months. That’s how long it’s been since Daryl found himself beside Paul and Aaron miles away from his grave. He tries to leave his haunt dozens of times, reaching the end of the dirt road and looping back to his grave over and over again. He’s not sure how long he spends doing these attempts, his sense of time is so fucked up he would’ve believed anything from a year to a hundred years. The spring dogwoods are in full bloom and he has no memory of it happening.

He sole lifeline is Olivia—when she comes to clean the cabin he’s able to look at the date when she checks her phone. He’s not sure how long it’s been since the last time, but he remembers the date. July 20, the Fourth has come and gone and Daryl thinks back to summers of previous years. The summer Tara and Paul came and had a dance party with Aaron in the cabin. The way Paul moved to the music, lithe and flexible. Every smile on his face, every longing look he threw Aaron’s way. The summer after that, Maggie and Glenn visiting, how fiercely protective of Paul she was and how Glenn defended Aaron. All the GREATMS at the cabin the following year, laughing and drinking into the night. Last summer, Aaron and Paul up here all the time. Aaron asking Paul to marry him the day it was made legal. The cabin is empty now, maybe for the longest stretch it’s been since that winter Aaron came alone with haunted eyes.

Daryl tries not to think about how if Paul is dead he might not know for years. When Eric died Aaron had run away to this cabin, a place they never had a real chance to make memories. Paul, however, is all over the cabin. The shit he bought the first year he came to check on Aaron is still being used. Paul told Aaron to will Daryl into existence while making burritos in the kitchen. They made love for the first time on couch on the main floor, kissed for the first time on the one in the rec room. Aaron proposed to Paul here, they got fucking married just outside. Daryl can too easily imagine Aaron never being able to set foot here again if Paul is dead. He tries not to dwell on it but he sees the funeral in his mind vividly. Sees the devastation on Aaron’s face, sees little Hershel crying and asking why Uncle Jesus won’t wake up. Sees Hershel the elder saying some words, maybe reading from the Bible, maybe saying some more of the stuff he talked about with Aaron at the wedding.

Daryl wonders where Aaron would bury Paul. Somewhere up here? There was Maggie and the rest of the Greene family to consider, they’d probably want him closer. Maybe he’d be cremated, and his ashes scattered in the mountains.

Daryl goes over these thoughts again and again, useless worry that he can do nothing about. One morning another thought comes to him more horrible than any so far:

Maybe they’re both dead.

Aaron had looked like he’d be ok, lost arm and everything. But Daryl didn’t know, did he? Something could’ve gone wrong. Hospitals were probably just as magic these days as phones and computers were but Daryl doesn’t think they’ve changed so much that mistakes aren’t made. His mind insists on showing him a vision of Aaron with black lines growing out of his stump, the whole thing foul and full of gangrene.

When these thoughts overwhelm him he has to go to the cabin, has to drift from room to room taking note of Aaron and Paul’s shared possessions. Clothes are still in the closet. Paul’s books are still mixed on the shelves next to Aaron’s. Paul’s pictures are still on the wall; Daryl goes stares at the one of him with his brother for long stretches of time. 

If they’re both dead someone woulda come by now to clean the place out, Daryl tells himself. Maggie would surely want Paul’s things at the very least.

The more time passes the less this is able to soothe him, the less he’s able to apply rational thought to the situation. Then July comes, and when Olivia comes for her monthly cleaning session she brings two big guys with her. Daryl watches with horror as they start moving furniture from the main floor downstairs to the rec room. No, no, no, goes through his mind as loud as a blaring siren. His fear is followed by confusion when they take apart the bed frame upstairs only to set it up again on the main floor.

When Olivia comes again two days later with a car full of groceries Daryl dares to hope.

*******************************************

Daryl has barely moved from the cabin since Olivia left the previous afternoon. He’s spent most of his time sitting on the floor across from the bed staring up at it, and is doing it when he feels someone entering his haunt with the force of an explosion. Only one person hits him like that, lights up the entire valley like a shot from a flare gun streaking across the sky. Daryl is outside on the porch in an instant; he wants to race down and meet them but he’s frozen in place, weirdly afraid to move. Afraid if he goes toward them it will grow foggy and he’ll end up back at his grave. An irrational, nonsensical fear he is powerless against.

After an eternity a shiny new Jeep is pulling into the drive in front of the cabin. This new one is a deep shade of red instead of black like the old one, and it still has stickers from the dealership. The front doors open and Aaron emerges from the passenger side.

If Daryl still had actual lungs then the sight of Aaron would have knocked his breath away. He’s hit with a horrible sense of doubling that goes beyond deja vu—Aaron arriving at the cabin alone four years ago and Daryl not recognizing him at first. Aaron’s hair is unflatteringly short, his curls clipped away. His eyes are sunken in and have dark circles beneath them, he’s lost weight and looks like he’s ten years older than he actually is.

Then there’s the arm. Where Aaron’s left arm used to be is something sleek and black that looks like something out of Star Wars. Any other time Daryl would marvel at it, but that moment is when he realizes the person who climbs down from the driver’s seat isn’t Paul; it’s Tara. She’s more solemn than Daryl’s ever seen her, none of her easy smiles or jokes as she looks at Aaron.

No, he thinks, fighting panic, he’s here, I can feel him—

Aaron opens the back door of the Jeep, and Daryl hears him say softly, “Come on, pal. We’re here, time to wake up.”

The relief Daryl feels when Paul Rovia climbs out of the back of the Jeep is so overwhelming he comes close to just switching off. The world is flooding with color again and Daryl wants to laugh and whoop with joy. Paul, like Aaron, looks rough, like he’s lost weight, like he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. None of that matters because despite walking a little slower he is wondrously, gloriously, impossibly alive.

Daryl is too relieved to pay much attention to the way Paul ignores his husband’s offered hand, the way his eyes don’t quite meet Aaron’s or Tara’s as he makes his way to the cabin, instead they’re firmly on the ground. He does catch the concerned look Tara and Aaron exchange, and feels a flicker of worry, wondering if Paul is not as ok as he seems.

He forgets all about that because right then is when Paul raises his eyes in the general direction of the cabin. Daryl can’t help it, he smiles a smile of pure joy, “Fucker. You scared the shit outta me. Glad to see you.”

Paul freezes mid-step. As Daryl watches the blood drains from his face and his eyes widen. They stare at him so intently that Daryl feels an impulse to check over his shoulder to see if there’s anything behind him. A ridiculous thought, but not as ridiculous as the only other explanation.

Seconds tick by and Paul doesn’t move, Daryl is vaguely aware that Aaron is asking Paul if anything is wrong. Paul’s eyes don’t waver from Daryl’s own, and the unbelievable certainty grows with each second. As ridiculous as it is Paul Rovia can see him. That knowledge is followed by another certainty—Paul can see him, and he is spooked.

“Paul?” Aaron whispers, putting an arm around his shoulders, “Hey, where are you at?”

Paul gives himself a shake, pointedly turning away from Daryl while still sneaking glimpses of him from out of the corner of his eye.

“I’m here, pal,” Paul says in a hoarse voice. He steps forward deliberately, eyes firmly averted as he walks past Daryl. Aaron and Tara exchange another concerned glance, face mirror images of worry.

Daryl can tell something is very wrong, even in his state of stunned disbelief at the fact that Paul can see him. Paul has trouble meeting Aaron and Tara’s eyes, barely speaks except for one word responses to direct questions, and flinches whenever he catches a glimpse of Daryl.

Fifteen minutes after they arrive Paul says he’s going to take a nap. He heads automatically to the steps leading to the loft before catching himself. He looks to where the bed has been moved to the main floor, tells Aaron and Tara that they don’t need to worry about keeping it down, and falls into it. He’s out within seconds. Aaron and Tara both stand staring at his sleeping figure, open worry on their faces before Aaron gestures to the porch.

Daryl drifts after them, pausing to throw a concerned look of his own at Paul.

*******************************************

“I don’t like the thought of leaving you two up here alone,” Tara says to Aaron.

“We won’t be alone,” Aaron says, “Carol’s daughter Sophia is going to come up every few days to help with meals and other stuff I’m not used to doing. Plus your girlfriend promised to drop by when she could.”

Tara turns pink, “Denise isn’t my girlfriend. We’re just friends.”

“For now,” Aaron says in a singsong voice, unknowingly mimicking the way Tara discussed him and Paul years ago.

Tara turns even pinker and smiles, “Oh, shut up.” She stares out over the valley, smile slowly fading. She looks over her shoulder, back through the windows to where Paul’s sleeping form can be made out. “How are you? Really, I mean.”

“I’m fine,” Aaron says, then immediately closes his eyes, looking tired, “Ok, I’m not fine. But I feel better now that we’re here.”

Tara fidgets and runs a nervous hand through her hair, “Are you sure you’ll be ok up here?”

“I’m not sure of anything anymore,” Aaron replies, “But when I mentioned coming up here…that’s the first time he seemed like himself since the accident. It’ll be good for him, and maybe with just the two of us…”

“Three of you,” Tara says, trying to smile, then, “Daryl, if you’re here be nice to Jesus. He’s had a tough time.”

“I know,” Daryl says, “I saw it happen. I’ll look after him, I’ll look after both of them. Don’t worry.”

“Three of us,” Aaron says, trying to smile and only partly succeeding, “You know I had another dream about him, or think I did,” his brow furrows, “Told me he wouldn’t let Paul go anywhere.”

“Well, good job,” Tara says, “Daryl, if you’re here then thanks. Finding a new gay best friend would’ve been such a pain—“ her voice cracks and she’s unable to finish the joke. Aaron puts an arm around her as she gets ahold of herself. “Sorry,” she says, sniffling a little, “I’m just worried about him. When I talk to him…it’s like he’s not really there.”

Aaron swallows, “Yeah, I know. He needs some more time, is all.” Aaron doesn’t sound like he believes it, and Tara doesn’t look very reassured either. She doesn’t reply, just tucks her head in Aaron’s shoulder and puts her arm around his waist. The two friends stand in silence for several minutes before Aaron whispers that he needs to call Maggie to let her know they made it safely.

*******************************************

Tara’s there for a few hours before Denise arrives to give her a ride. Despite her protestations that Denise isn’t her girlfriend Tara lights up, the first real smiles Daryl’s seen since she’s arrived. Aaron goes to wake Paul up so he can say goodbye over her protests.

“I was going to wake him up anyway,” Aaron says, “Try and get him to eat some dinner.”

Paul wakes up long enough to give Tara a hug and thank her for driving them up here. She squeezes him tight and tells him that she loves him.

“Call me if you need anything,” Tara says, then, “Bye, Daryl! Sorry we didn’t get to hang out more.”

“Goodbye, sweetheart,” Daryl says, “I meant what I said, I’ll look after ‘em.”

Paul flinches, and pointedly does not look Daryl’s way. Aaron and Tara both frown at him before the latter leaves with Denise. Then it’s just the three of them; Paul is breathing in a slow, controlled way and looking away from Daryl and Aaron both.

“I think I’m going to go back to sleep,” Paul says after a long silence.

“Have dinner with me first,” Aaron says. He raises his shiny black sci-fi hand. To Daryl’s astonishment the fingers close all on their own with little electronic whirring noise. The index finger extends and curls back a few times in a “come hither” gesture. There’s something strangely comical about it, and Aaron’s deadpan expression makes it even more so.

Paul smiles faintly, “Ok. What are we having?”

“I am going to attempt an omelette,” he replies.

Paul’s lips twitch again, “You mean you’re going to break a dozen eggs playing with Darth Hander then go for the ramen. Let me make some spaghetti, you can chop veggies.”

“Darth Hander is getting the knack of egg cracking,” Aaron says, “Don’t hurt his feelings.” The fingers open and close with more whirring noises.

“Holy shit,” Daryl says, “That thing is so fucking cool.”

Paul flinches again, darting a quick glance out of the corner of his eye at Daryl. He’s pale and his smile vanishes. Aaron frowns out him, “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” Paul says, face going blank, “Come on, I’m still tired. Let’s eat so I can go back to sleep.”

He’s scared of me, Daryl thinks, thoughts a mixture of disbelief, confusion, and hurt. He remembers Paul saying it was nice to see him when they were in the car, the way he responded when Daryl said he loved him. “I’ll just go to my grave for a bit,” he says, “Let you two alone.” He doesn’t wait for a response, Paul’s flinch is enough. He leaves quickly, trying to work out just what the hell is going on.

*******************************************

The moon has risen high in the sky before Daryl works up the courage to return to the cabin. The lights are out; and he drifts cautiously over to the bed. Aaron’s artificial hand is plugged into a charger by the bed, a little green light casting a faint glow. Aaron is asleep on his left side, right hand draped loosely on Paul’s hip.

As Daryl stares at them Paul starts to stir. He withdraws quickly, drifting out to the porch so that he doesn’t spook Paul again. He’s at a complete loss on how to proceed, he feels half crazy. Paul sees him, not that faraway subconscious awareness but truly sees him. What should be a joyful experience makes Daryl anxious and guilty, he must’ve done something to make Paul scared of him—

Behind him the door slides open and closed. Daryl spins around and sees Paul. He’s wearing a pair of sweats and a soft t-shirt and is looking straight at Daryl. Not that furtive glance out of the corner of his eyes, but at Daryl’s face. . The intensity of the eye contact hits him almost as hard as the intensity of experiencing Paul’s secondhand orgasms. Paul is awake, aware, and isn’t two steps away from death. Paul wets his lips with his tongue and says, “Hi.  We haven’t…we haven’t really been introduced. I’m Paul, but most of my friends call me Jesus.”

Daryl stares at him, thunderstruck. A thousand questions come to his mind as the seconds tick by, so many it’s like a traffic jam to his mouth and he can’t voice any. Finally he gets out, “I know who the fuck you are, asshole. And that’s a stupid nickname, I ain’t using it.”

Paul exhales loudly, “Oh. Of course you do…I’m sorry, I…”

“I’m Daryl,” he replies, “If’n we’re being polite.”

“I know,” Paul whispers. He hesitates, then says, “I…you were with us. During the accident.”

“Yeah,” Daryl says, dropping his eyes and shuffling his feet, “I been worried sick. Thought you’d…” He can finish the thought, just shuffles his feet more. He raises his head, and Paul has that haunted look in his eyes. “Are you…you ain’t scared of me, are ya?”

Paul closes his eyes, “I’m fucking terrified of you.”

“Why? Daryl says, “You been…I knew you could hear me, we’ve talked before, while you was falling asleep…fuck, I told you I l—“

“Because I’m still not sure I haven’t lost my fucking mind and you’re a hallucination,” Paul interrupts.

Daryl stares at him, “Bullshit. I ain’t no hallucination, or projection, or…or what ever bullshit you’re trying to feed yourself.”

Paul’s eyes fly open, and he blinks at Daryl’s face, “Just the sort of thing a hallucination would say.”

“And that’s just the thing a little bullshitter like you would say,” Daryl snaps back, “You been nattering on for years like I’m an imaginary friend of Aaron’s; or calling me ‘sexy dream ghost’ when you really want to be an asshole. All this time you could hear me, you knew I was there.”

Paul looks away, twisting his head back over his shoulder to the cabin. The windows are black and shiny in the night, Aaron is hidden from view but Daryl knows that’s what Paul is trying to see. Finally Paul says, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t…I wasn’t doing it on purpose.”

Daryl’s anger deflates, “You don’t gotta apologize. I sorta knew that already, that you didn’t realize what you was doing.” He fidgets, “Sorry I got you so spooked. I can leave you be, but…” butch up, “But I meant what I said in the car, and at your wedding.” Then, when Paul just stands there breathing raggedly, “Please. Before I go just talk to me. Or listen. There’s so much I’ve wanted to say to you, to him. Tell me what’s eating you, it ain’t just me—“

“What’s eating me is that I remember,” Paul whispers, “All the shit I thought I’d forgotten, all the shit that I wanted to forget. I can’t stop remembering, can’t stop seeing. You’re right, it isn’t just you.”

“What’re you talking about?” Daryl asks, “What do you remember?

“The year we were eight, for starters,” Paul says.

Daryl wonders what the living fuck he’s talking about, what the year he was eight has to do with anything. Then he remembers snatches of a long ago conversation.

“When we were eight we went on vacation to Disney. I’ve got pictures and I have memories of telling people about the trip, but I have no memories of the trip itself. Almost that entire year is a blank, actually.”

Almost that entire year is blank.

“What happened?” Daryl whispers.

Paul lets out a shuddery breath, “I saw what I’m pretty sure was my first ghost.” Another breath, “She…she wasn’t as friendly as you.”

Daryl stares at him, then, “I knew I wasn’t the first. Your brother at least, I knew you saw ‘im. Wasn’t no ‘projection’ or what the fuck ever.”

Paul lets out another harsh breath and to Daryl’s horror he starts crying. Not hard, just a few tears spilling out that he starts frantically wiping away. Daryl reaches out automatically before stopping himself, afraid. He lets his hand drop to his side, “I’m sorry as all fuck. My brother…he was an asshole, and didn’t always do right by me, but…” Daryl swallows, “But I don’t know what happened to ‘im, and I never got to…I’m sorry, man.”

Paul lets out a humorless bark of laughter through his tears, “Fuck, this is…radically different from some of the other conversations I’ve been having with dead people since I woke up. The hospital was like being in hell, so many ghosts, a lot of them shouty once they realized I could see them.”

Daryl stares at him, “Fuck, I’m sorry. I guess being dead don’t stop folk from being dicks.” Guilt pricks him, “I was a dick myself, for a bit. Shouted at you, but I quit doing that. I do fuck with the ball when you’n Aaron play pingpong, though.”

Paul lets out another teary laugh, sniffles deeply and wipes his eyes again, “Motherfucker. Knew he was cheating.”

“He didn’t have nothing to do with it,” Daryl says, “Acted on my own.”

“Still counts as cheating,” Paul says.

Daryl gives him a cautious smile, “Sorry, you’re just fun to mess with when you get cocky.” Paul smiles back, and to Daryl’s astonished delight he no longer looks spooked, he looks cautiously hopeful. Like a man crawling through desert spying an oasis and not knowing whether or not it’s a mirage. “Talk to me, man,” Daryl whispers, “Might be able to help some.”

“It’s kind of a long story,” Paul says.

“I got time,” Daryl says, “All the time in the world.”

Chapter Text

The first thing Paul says to Daryl when the two of them settle down into the rockers is, “Whoah. Deja vu. Have we…we’ve done this before.”

Daryl blinks at him, “Yeah, I guess we have. I like sitting out here with you’n Aaron both, on your own or together.”

Paul doesn’t answer, and the only sound is the creaking of the wood when he starts gently rocking his chair. His feet are bare, and Daryl glances down to study the way they bend and flex—flat against the wood of the porch, rolling to tiptoe as he pushes the chair back and forth. Paul is looking out over the valley, the moon high and illuminating it just enough to get a vague sense of the trees and distance hills. Finally his feet are flat, and he stills the rocker. When Daryl looks up at his face Paul is looking back at him. The fear in his eyes isn’t gone, but neither is the hopeful look.

“How long have you been out here?” Paul asks quietly, “Aaron didn’t give me the exact date.

“Going on thirty-seven years,” saying it out loud feels strange, “I was thirty-eight when I died. Won’t be long until…” he trails off.

“Until you were dead longer than you were alive,” Paul finishes.

Daryl nods, “Guess everyone spends more time dead than alive.”

“Yeah,” Paul says, “But most people don’t have to confront it in such a direct way. I’m sorry this happened to you.”

“S’alright,” Daryl says, shifting uncomfortably, “I’ve gotten used to it by now. Anyhow, we don’t need to talk ‘bout me. I think Aaron told you the important bits years ago. Tell me about when you were eight. Who was this ghost?”

“I never found out,” Paul whispers, “We…we didn’t exactly sit down and converse like you and me are doing now,” he lets out a shaky breath, “It’s…one day we moved to a new apartment, the first time I rode in the elevator with my dad she was just standing there, a sweet-looking old woman who smiled at me. I asked her to push the button for the sixth floor and my dad asked me who I was talking to. That’s when I realized…the elevator doors were shiny, like a mirror, and her reflection wasn’t there.”

“Fuck, that’s straight up horror movie shit,” Daryl mutters.

Paul lets out a huff, “You have no fucking idea. When she realized I could see her she wouldn’t leave me alone. Everywhere I went she followed me, just a few feet behind. Even crawled in bed with me a few times, I’d lift the covers and there’d be eyes looking up at me…” Paul’s breathing speeds up, his eyes go glassy and Daryl knows he’s panicking. Without thinking Daryl reaches out and presses his fingers against the other man’s wrist, trying to push a sense of it’s ok she ain’t here it’s over Paul’s way. Daryl hasn’t tried to do anything like this in years; not since he tried throwing his ugliest memories Paul’s way and got more than a few thrown back. Paul flinches at first, but as he looks at Daryl his breathing slows back down. Eventually Daryl takes his hand away, feeling shaky.

“She sounds like an asshole,” Daryl mutters. He shifts guiltily, “I…I did that sometimes. Liked laying down next to Aaron when he slept…but he sorta…I mean, we knew each other, even if we only talked once. And wasn’t no little kid.”

“And when you saw I was freaked out earlier you left,” Paul says softly, “Thank you.”

“Fuck, that’s just bein’ polite,” Daryl says.

Paul huffs out a shaky laugh, “Well, you could teach some of your ghostly brethren a thing or two about manners.

Daryl snorts, “Probably the first time anyone’s said that about one of those Dixon boys.”

Paul looks at him curiously, “Is that your last name? I knew Aaron made up ‘McManus’ because you never told him what yours was…”

“Yeah,” Daryl says, “Daryl Jess Dixon.”

“What day were you born?”

“December 15, 1940,” Daryl replies, “Wasn’t long after my first birthday when my Daddy left to fight the Japanese people.”

“What, all of them?” Paul says, raising an eyebrow. When Daryl looks confused he hastily says, “Never mind. What about your brother? When was he born?”

“What’s it matter? Stop tryin’ to avoid talking ‘bout your own shit by asking about me.”

Paul blinks, “I wasn’t, not on purpose…I just…” he lowers his eyes, “I thought about what you said, how you’d give anything to know what happened to your brother. I…I could look him up. Both of you, see if there’s any records. I wasn’t trying to avoid talking about me…”

Daryl feels a burning in his chest, a feeling of…fuck, he doesn’t know. The selfish asshole part of him wants to tell Paul more, maybe ask him to get his laptop out right now to look up what he could about Merle William Dixon, born on April 6, 1933 in Sedalia, Georgia to William and Arlene Dixon. He knows Merle is most likely dead, and if not he’s in his eighties and probably still every bit the asshole he was in his forties, but…

Daryl forces those thoughts away, “We can do that later. Like I said, we’re talking about you.”

“And like I said,” Paul replies, “I wasn’t trying to avoid it. I was going to say…” he swallows, “What made me think of your brother was thinking about mine. John…I would’ve lost my fucking mind for real if it weren’t for him. He couldn’t see her, but he believed me. And he helped me figure out how to deal with it,” Paul smiles faintly, “He’s the one who got me to love doing research. He dragged me into the library and asked the librarians for ‘grownup’ books about ghosts, not just stories for kids. He was the bookworm back then, more than I was. We used to switch places in school sometimes, I’d go to his gym classes and he’d take my math classes.”

“Aaron told me about that,” Daryl says, “The last bit, I mean, bout you two switching places. Said your mom had to call the school sometimes to be sure you was where you was supposed to be.”

Paul blinks at him, surprised, “I remember talking to him about that. He…he told you?”

Daryl rolls his eyes, “Are you kiddin’ me? The entire year it took him to butch up and ask you to be his boyfriend he told me everything you did. Sometimes even the color of clothes you wore.”

Paul grins, a real one, “Must’ve gotten boring.”

“Nah,” Daryl admits, dropping his eyes and fidgeting, “One of my favorite topics of conversation.”

It’s Paul’s turn to look away, shy. “Likewise,” he says, “I teased him about it, but…I liked hearing about Aaron’s ghost. Liked reading about you in his book.”

“Oh,” Daryl says, squirming in his seat. A horrible thought comes to him, “Did you ever read the second draft?”

Paul gives him an odd look, “No, I’m weird about things like that. Only the final version.”

“Good,” Daryl says. The final draft is bad enough but there’s only one explicit sex scene that Daryl can recall. He quickly changes the subject, “So…how’d you figure it out?”

“I don’t think I did, not really,” Paul whispers, “I think I started…do you know what disassociation is?” When Daryl shakes his head Paul explains, “It’s a psychological thing. Like, you disconnect your thoughts from reality, what’s happening to you. Step outside yourself.”

Daryl feels a chill, and remembers some of the times Will Dixon really beat the tar out of him, the times that left scars. Being so hurt and scared until he just…went away, and it was like watching himself from the outside. “Ok, yeah. I know ‘bout that, didn’t know it had a name.”

“Oh,” Paul says, “Of course you do, Aaron said the backstory of the character all came from you…” he swallows, “Anyway, I’m not sure it was exactly like that. I just knew when I saw a ghost I’d just…I’d picture myself walking around with no ghosts.” He hesitates, looking over his shoulder again towards the house, and in a tight voice says, “Aaron gets phantom limb pain really bad. You know what that is?”

“I do,” Daryl says, confused at the abrupt shift in subject, “Or think I do. One of my Daddy’s buddies from the war stepped on a landmine and got his leg blowed off, said he could still feel it itch, or sometimes like someone was tickling his feet.”

“One of his therapies,” Paul says, frowning in concentration, “It’s called mirror therapy. The only thing to it is holding a mirror in front of his right hand. He stares at the reflection and moves his fingers around and it…it’s like it tricks his brain. He sees his left hand there, or what looks like it moving around normally.”

“Don’t that beat all,” Daryl mutters, “Sounds like some hoodoo nonsense. It actually works?”

Paul lets out an amused huff, and when Daryl gives him a confused look says, “Just…seeing a ghost sneer at ‘hoodoo nonsense’. Maybe hoodoo is real, or, or ouija boards and seances. Who knows?”

“Aaron was readin’ bout some of that shit, from what I c’n tell from my expert ghostly opinion it’s all bull,” he hesitates, “Actually, there was one thing he read about, I’ll talk to you about it in a bit. What’s mirror therapy got to do with ghosts?” Daryl thinks he has an idea, and it’s confirmed when Paul starts talking again.

“Like I said,” Paul murmurs, “John couldn’t see them. I would kind of…I would watch him walking around not seeing ghosts, pretend I wasn’t either.”

“That don’t sound…” Daryl starts to say. He doesn’t know much about psychology; he knows more than he did when he was alive from things Aaron’s read and things he’s seen on TV. He can’t think of the right words, “That don’t sound like something you could keep up. Or healthy.”

“It wasn’t,” Paul says, “Obviously.” His eyes get that faraway look they used to get when Daryl talked to him, and now he wonders if every time that happened Paul was just…checking out. Pretending he wasn’t hearing what he was hearing, or even seeing what he was seeing. “Do you know what else I remembered?” Paul says conversationally, “I remembered this when we were in the crash and right after, when I heard Aaron screaming. I was terrified, I couldn’t, all I could think was we were trapped, someone needed to help us, help get us out, I was screaming for help, from anybody. Then you were there. I remembered…” his voice falters, “It all felt familiar. Like I’d gone through this before, and I knew what was going to happen. The day John and our parents died they were taking him to a doctor’s appointment. I was still in school, they usually scheduled us together but it I had soccer practice…anyway, one second I was standing on the field and the next I heard my mom screaming, then I saw John…” his breathing is raspy, “I was there, right next to him. They were driving across a bridge when a truck hit them head on, the guy was drunk at noon on a work day. Dad and my mom died right away, but John…he was hurt too bad to get out, and he drowned. I was with him right up until the end, holding his hand, but at the same time I could feel everything he was feeling until he was gone. I guess I fainted, because the next thing I remember was being in the school nurse’s office and someone telling me they were dead.”

“My fucking Christ,” Daryl whispers, overcome with horror at the thought of two little kids trapped in a wrecked car, water slowly rising, until there was no air pockets left and the inevitable happened. He wonders if, like him, John had been trapped in his body at first. Sitting down in the dark water alone, a little fucking kid—

He pushes that thought away, it’s too horrible to contemplate. He hopes this death and ghost shit is different for little fucking kids, he’d been a grown man and the whole thing was still scary and confusing as hell. After a few minutes he’s able to find his voice, “Shit, man. No wonder you made yourself forget. That’s…I’m sorry you went through that when you was a kid.”

Paul’s eyes are present, focused on Daryl. “I…thank you. It’s ok, but I…fuck, I couldn’t talk about this to anyone, I thought I was going to lose my fucking mind. Therapy’s been useless because I can’t be honest and…” he smiles, “I’m still not sure I haven’t lost my mind.”

Daryl hesitates, then says, “Do you remember what you said to Aaron? How it don’t matter if I’m real or not, and if talking to me helped then to do it anyway?”

“Yeah…”

“That was a load of bullshit. I ain’t a projection, and you ain’t crazy. This shit happened and pretending it didn’t ain’t gonna make you feel better.”

Paul raises his eyebrows, “Tough love from the possible hallucination.”

“Fuck off,” Daryl grumbles, then, “What happened after?”

“I…I don’t know,” Paul says, “I remember John coming and staying with me the first year. He’d chase off any ghosts that bothered me at first…”

Daryl snorts, “Really? As a little kid?”

“Yeah,” Paul says, smiling a little, “He had balls. I think maybe because…well, he wasn’t confused or lost. I don’t know. We also kept working on ways for me to tune them out,” his breath catches, “I…I don’t know if it worked too well, and that’s why I stopped seeing him. Or if it was therapy, learning coping methods and it spilled over into…whatever this is. All I know is that I eventually just…forgot all about most of this shit, and now that I remember nothing works anymore. I can’t…I can’t turn it off, and the dead are everywhere.”

“Well, I ain’t seen no other ghosts the entire time I been up here,” Daryl replies, “But if I see any I’ll send ‘em packing, don’t worry. It’s just me, and like I said I c’n…I c’n clear out.”

Paul studies him, eyes soft, “Well, and like I said you’re the only one I’ve been able to talk to about this. You don’t…you don’t have to leave. I…I’d prefer if you didn’t, actually.”

Daryl feels warmth bubbling through his chest, a cautious hope, “You ain’t scared of me no more?” he says with a little smile.

Paul smiles back, “I wouldn’t go that far, but I’m getting there.”

“Good deal,” Daryl says, then frowns, “I guess…I mean, I guess I’ll need to clear out some, now that you know I’m around…” he shifts, “I guess…I guess I should tell ya that sometimes I can’t leave.”

“What’s that mean?” Paul asks.

“I mean it’s like…I try to leave, and I can’t. I think…I think you do it. Not on purpose, but sometimes it’s like you drag me along with you, or…um…one time it was like I was you. Inside you.”

Paul studies, face unreadable, “When?”

Fuck. He didn’t think this line of conversation through; but he knows he needs to nut up and be honest about the things he’d gotten up to. “When you two was…when you passed out, that one time. It scare’t Aaron.”

“Oh,” Paul says contemplatively, “I guess I should’ve figured that one out already, that it was you.”

“I’m sorry,” Daryl says quickly, “I wasn’t trying to…”

“There’s a grounding technique for disassociation,” Paul interrupts, “Where you focus on being present in your body. I…I have to do that a lot with Aaron when we…I wonder if that’s what causes you to get pulled along. Fuck, I still don’t know how this shit works.

You got me,” Daryl replies, then, “Did Aaron ever talk to you ‘bout Maria Rovia?”

Paul blinks, “Who?”

Daryl explains how Aaron came across the name while doing research on Spiritualism, and did a bit of digging on her. “She was even on the Wikipedia,” Daryl says, “There was a picture of her, and…and she looked like she could be related to you. Said she’d written some things, might be something there you could use.”

“No, he never talked to me about that,” Paul says thoughtfully, “I…I suppose I could look into it. See what I can find. I wonder why he didn’t mention it to me.”

Daryl shrugs, “He was going to, but when he called Fucking Alex answered the phone and got him all het up. Madder than a three-legged cat trying to bury a turd, as my Daddy would say.”

Paul barks out a surprised laugh, then claps his hand over his mouth and looks over his shoulder through the windows. His shoulders shake and Daryl can see his eyes are crinkled the way they do when he smiles. The fact that he’s the one that made Paul laugh like that warms Daryl all over. Once Paul has control over himself he says, “I don’t know what’s funnier; that even you call him ‘Fucking Alex’ or your Daddy’s saying.”

“Well, I ain’t never met him but he still sounds like that much of a prick. Aaron told me about ‘im, I’d like to stomp his ass.”

Paul smiles again, “Well, I appreciate the sentiment, but I can do my own ass-stomping.”

“Guy sounds like he could do with more’n one,” Daryl replies, “I’ll let you go first.”

“Good point. But it’s really not necessary, I’ve barely thought of him since Aaron and I got together.” His smile fades, and he looks awkward and shy, “I…we glossed over it, but I guess you do watch us when we’re together.”

Daryl drops his eyes and gives a nod, “Sorry. Maybe now that we both know it’s happening I won’t get pulled in no more.”

“If it’s me that’s doing it, pulling you in,” Paul says softly, “Then I should be apologizing to you. Even if it wasn’t on purpose.”

Daryl wishes to hell he could switch off right then. He considers just saying goodbye to Paul for the night and fleeing to his grave. But there’s being a pussy and being a fucking pussy, “I. Um. You don’t gotta apologize to me for that.”

Paul is silent, and Daryl is too afraid to look at his face to see how he feels about that. “You like watching us.”

“Yeah,” Daryl says, eyes still firmly on the wood of the porch, “I know how that sounds, and…” he stammers, “I just…I never got to do any of that stuff, when I was alive. And I…” he chances a quick glance at Paul and can’t read his face, so drops his eyes again, “I meant what I said in the car, and at your wedding. I like being with you two, even if you don’t know I’m there. But I c’n stop, we can figure out a way—“

“You don’t have to,” Paul says quietly, “I mean, I’ll figure out a way to stop pulling you in because you should be able to have a choice. But if you want to stay you can. I don’t mind, and I’m pretty sure Aaron feels the same.”

Daryl’s head jerks up, expecting a smirk, but Paul’s expression is dead serious and just a little heated and fuck, this is too much for Daryl. The past few hours that they’ve been talking really hit him—he’s being seen, he’s talking to Paul in the waking world, chatting like old friends, and now Paul is telling him that he’s ok with Daryl watching him fuck his husband—

“Whoah,” Paul says, leaning forward, “You look like you’re going to explode. I forgot Aaron said you were shy. Sorry if that was too much.”

“Ain’t shy,” Daryl protests.

“Of course not,” Paul says, a hint of amusement in his voice. When Daryl looks back at him he’s grown serious, “It’s actually…you actually don’t need to worry about that right now. We, uh. We haven’t had sex since the accident.”

Daryl looks at him in disbelief, “Really?”

“You sound so shocked,” Paul says wryly.

“Fuck, there was times I thought you two’d never do anything else,” Daryl mutters, “Made me fucking crazy.”

Paul shifts in his rocker, looking over his shoulder again toward where Aaron is sleeping inside the cabin, “We. We, uh tried about a month ago, and I just couldn’t.”

Daryl shifts, feeling awkward and stupid for feeling awkward. He’s just admitted to watching Paul and Aaron fuck, Paul has just admitted to being ok with it, there’s no reason for Daryl to be this embarrassed.

Take your own advice, Darlina. Nut up.

“What…why not? Was you still…I mean, I know you both was hurt.”

“That was part of at first,” Paul swallows, “Now it’s just…I’ve got this hanging over me. Maybe losing my mind, not knowing what’s real, lying to him,” he looks down, “And…and the arm. Like, it doesn’t bother me…I mean, it does, because I hate him hurting, but I’m still just as attracted to him. He acts like it doesn’t bother him, but I know it does, and I can’t…I’m too much of a mess to help him. He had this happen to him and he has to worry about me instead of himself.”

“Well, just stop lying to ‘im, tell ‘im what you told me,” Daryl says, “We can…fuck, all three of us can figure out how to talk to each other.”

Paul turns away from him, silent for several long moments, “It…It’s not that easy.”

“Sure it is,” Daryl says, “He believes I’m here, you know he does.”

“He thinks he does,” Paul says, “It’s one thing to play along because it helps him, it’s another for me to go up and say I can see and talk to you, he’ll think I’ve lost my mind—“

“You ain’t a mind reader,” Daryl says, “Or are ya? Shit, can you see the future too?”

Paul goes very pale. Over the course of their conversation he’s had moments where he’s described horrible things, where he’s looked panicked, but at the same time he’s gradually been doing better, seems calmer. Now he looks like he’s going to be sick, “I don’t know,” he says in a small voice. “There’s…there’s something else, something that took me a long time to make the connection, with everything that’s going on…” his voice breaks, and he needs a moment to gather himself, “You’re always here, right? You…you’ve seen all the conversations we’ve had…”

“Not all of ‘em,” Daryl grumbles.

“You were here for this one,” Paul says, “It was the night…it was when Aaron kissed me the first time, you stopped me from leaving…”

“Yeah, I was there for that,” Daryl says.

“Do you remember what he said to me, about how he hated Eric sometimes?” Daryl nods, “One of the things he said was he hated Eric for was ‘not being fucking psychic’ and knowing he was sick in time to actually do something about it.”

“Oh,” Daryl says, feeling a cold blast to his guts when he realizes what Paul is getting at, “Did you?”

“I don’t know,” Paul says, putting a hand to his face, “I’ve gone over it so many times, and I think…I think I did. That summer he was diagnosed we all got together one night and I saw Eric, and he looked awful. Like, shockingly awful. He was always skinny but he looked like a damned skeleton. I even took Aaron aside and asked if he was ok, and Aaron acted like I’d lost my mind. So did the others when I mentioned it, like I was seeing something completely different from everyone else. The next time I saw him he looked normal, and he did right up until he started wasting away for real.”

At that moment Daryl thinks if he were given the option of being alive again on the sole condition of never smoking or stay dead but be able to have an infinite amount of cigarettes he’d choose the latter. He wants a cigarette so bad he could cry over it, wants to inhale smoke and feel the soothing nicotine buzz while he turns over all this shit in his head. Daryl knows what he thinks—that if Paul had a vision or sensed something was wrong with Eric he had no idea at the time what was happening. Daryl also knows Paul would rather have Eric alive even if it meant he and Aaron would never have happened.

“Yeah,” Paul says hoarsely, breaking the silence and pulling Daryl out of these thoughts, “You see why it’s complicated. Why I can’t…sometimes I can’t stand to touch him, knowing what I might’ve done.”

Daryl shakes his head, “It ain’t complicated, not at all, tell 'em what you told me. He'll understand."

Paul laughs bitterly, “Oh, of course he will. I’m sure he won’t hold it against me at all if he finds out there’s the tiniest chance the guy he’s fucking could’ve saved the love his life—“

“Stop talking like that, it’s bullshit and you know it,” Daryl snaps, “You ain’t ‘the guy he’s fucking’, what’s wrong with you? How could you even think that about him?”

“Well, I don’t really know, do I?” Paul says, voice bitter. He sounds exactly like how he did years ago, after Aaron first told him he loved him, “I don’t know what’s real and what’s in my own head anymore. My shrink tells me I project my own insecurities on people and I’m not a mind reader, but maybe I am. Maybe I’ve just been picking up people’s thoughts without realizing it, the same way I’ve been hearing you without realizing it,” he stares down at the wedding band on his finger and starts twisting it with his other hand, “I wish you hadn’t stopped me from leaving that night. Then you had to do the same damn thing later after the accident and I wish you hadn’t, maybe in the next world things would be less complicated—“

Daryl doesn’t think, he just lunges for him like before, only he doesn’t stop with just touching his wrist. Instead he leans over and grabs the back of Paul’s neck, jerking his face up, “Listen to me. Don’t you never talk like that, don’t you think that. About takin’ the easy way out. That’s what I did, that’s what I was. Just a guy drifting along, bein’ nothing because I thought I didn’t deserve no better and it was easier to stay put, to not take risks. Maybe if I’d’ve taken a chance I wouldn’t have ended up a pile of forgotten bones in the middle of the woods.”

Paul squeezes his eyes shut and he takes in several deep breaths, “Daryl,” he says, “You don’t know—“

Daryl doesn’t find out what he doesn’t know, because that’s when behind them the lights from inside the cabin click on, pouring out over the porch. Both of them jump and turn around, Aaron is standing in the middle of the living space looking around frantically.

Paul gets to his feet and rushes to the door, sliding it open and stepping inside, “Hey,” he says, “Sorry, I just needed some air.”

Daryl watches as the tension drains from Aaron’s body, shoulders slumping with relief. He’s not wearing a shirt and Daryl gets a good look at his stump for the first time.

“Hey,” Aaron says, taking in a steadying breath, “I’m sorry, I just…bad dreams, and you weren’t there.”

Paul hesitates; and seeing him do that would break Daryl’s heart even if he didn’t know all the reasons why. Then Paul takes in a steadying breath of his own and goes to Aaron, wrapping his arms around him pressing his face in his shoulder. “Sorry for scaring you, pal. What did you dream about?”

“Zombies,” Aaron says, smiling a little and pressing his cheek against the top of Paul’s head, “One stabbed you in the heart.”

“Zombies can stab people?”

“These ones could,” Aaron says, running his hand down Pauls back, fingers pausing at the spot where that bit of scrap metal went through him.

“Just a dream,” Paul whispers, “I’m here now. I’m not going anywhere. Not…not until you want me to.”

Aaron shifts his head so he can kiss Paul’s cheek, “Well, ten days past never, then.”

Paul is silent, ducking his head down and twisting it back to where Daryl is standing and watching them both. He gently untangles from Aaron and says they need to go back to bed.

“All sexy ghosts are welcome to hang around, by the way,” Paul says.

“Asshole,” Daryl mutters, “You and me got some more things to talk about. Ain’t get out of ‘em that easy.”

“I changed my mind,” Paul says, “Sexy ghosts not welcome.”

“Be nice to Daryl,” Aaron mumbles as he follows Paul back to their bed, pulling the other man in with him.

“Yeah, fucker,” Daryl says, “I’ll clear out for tonight, but like I said. We got more things to talk about.”

Chapter Text

Daryl spends the rest of the night sitting at his grave, turning over what Paul told him again and again, trying to figure out what the fuck to do about it all. First order of business needs to be getting Paul to stop being a pussy and sit down and talk things out with Aaron. It’s not like Daryl doesn’t get it; after thinking it over the whole thing is scary as shit. There’s the fear that Aaron will think Paul is crazy, and that even after all these years together he doesn’t really believe Daryl exists. That it’s just a game he’s been playing, talking to himself and when it comes down to the wire he’ll pull a Paul Rovia and pretend he doesn’t know what he knows.

As soon as he thinks that he hears his own words to Paul last night, How could I even think that about him?

Daryl sighs, and thinks back to the night Aaron kissed Paul the first time, and the talk they had after. How you can hate people because you’re scared or in pain, how it’s not really you. Not ok, but understandable. Forgivable.

The sky lightens around him and Daryl is barely aware. He has a vague idea of waiting until mid-morning to go check on Paul, but to his surprise he senses someone approaching his grave. Someone is completely silent but his footsteps seem to reverberate through the earth all the same. Daryl turns and sees Paul Rovia making his way down the ridge toward him. He’s wearing a shirt that is normally fitted but hangs loose on him now. He’s lost a good bit of muscle tone but he’s still so fucking beautiful he makes Daryl hyper-aware of every fucking flaw he has.

As he approaches Daryl is unable to stop himself from asking, “Hell you doing out here? You good to go tramping around alone?”

Paul raises his eyebrows, “Well, good fucking morning to you. And walking down this ridge isn’t going to kill me.”

“Where’s Aaron? He’s been worried ‘bout you.”

“He’s asleep, and I left him a note. All he has to do is look down through the windows and see me out here talking to myself.”

Daryl feels a nasty jolt, “You saying you can fucking see me from up there?” He’s not sure why he asks, the answer is completely fucking obvious.

“Yeah. When I looked out this morning I saw you down here brooding,” Paul lowers his eyes to the earth at Daryl’s feet and swallows hard, “So. Is…is that it? Where the rest of you is?”

“Yeah,” Daryl replies, feeling completely fucking exposed all at once. Aaron had stood on top of his grave the first time they met but it’d been different. Aaron hadn’t known Daryl even existed, much less where he was buried, and he hadn’t paid any special attention to the spot itself. Having a living person standing next to his grave and looking at it is indescribable. The closest approximation is the time when Merle walked in while he was jacking off to the men’s underwear section of the Sears catalog. He remembered the horrified panic, the way he knocked the catalog shut praying to god Merle hadn’t gotten a good look. Knowing that if Merle had it would change everything; fear and shame and guilt swirling around in his head.

Paul doesn’t seem to notice Daryl’s turmoil, he’s still looking down at the ground, as though he has x-ray vision and can see Daryl’s actual bones. “What would happen if we dug you up? Buried you someplace else?”

“I don’t know and I ain’t interested in finding out,” Daryl says, hearing the panic in his own voice and unable to stop himself from begging, “Please…please don’t…if you want me to clear out just ask—”

Paul looks at him eyes wide and contrite, “What? I wasn’t threatening you.”

Daryl feels relieved and little like a horse’s ass when he’s calmed down, “Sorry. I just…I’m happy here. I don’t want to be stuck in no graveyard in town.”

“How do you know you’d be stuck?” Paul murmurs, “You told Aaron you thought that your brother marking your grave was what made it so you could leave your body. Maybe you could go anywhere you wanted. Even the next world someday.”

“Look, despite what Aaron says I wasn’t a good person when I was alive, and I’m pretty sure where I’ll go if there’s a next world.”

“You underestimate yourself,” Paul says quietly, looking at him in a way that Daryl can’t stand, “But it’s not important right now, I guess. Anyway, what were you thinking about down here for so long?”

“What do you think?” Daryl says, and before Paul can give an evasive answer, “Just so you don’t try to wiggle out of it: I been thinking of the best way to get your stubborn ass to talk to Aaron. Not just ‘bout me, ‘bout everything.”

Paul closes his eyes, “I know. I was thinking about it all night, and I…” he swallows, “Ever since we got together part of me has just been waiting for…fuck, I don’t know. The scales to fall from his eyes, he’d really look at me, and whatever he saw would change how he felt about me. I thought it went away, that I was over it, I wouldn’t have said ‘yes’ to getting married if I hadn’t…” He gives a rueful little smile, “You know, if this wedding band weren’t on my finger I probably would’ve run off by now.”

“Then I’m real fucking glad it is,” Daryl rasps out, “Saves me the trouble of figuring out how to leave this place and drag you back.”

“You can leave, though,” Paul points out, “You came to us after the accident.”

“Pretty sure you did that,” Daryl says, “Anyhow, it don’t matter either way. What are you afraid of? He’ll think you’re nuts? He’s nuttier than you are then, since he talks to me all the damn time.”

“I can live with him thinking I’m crazy,” Paul says quietly, “Because I still think there’s a chance I am. It’s mostly…if he believes me, and has a chance to think about the thing with Eric.”

“You didn’t make him sick,” Daryl says.

“But I saw it,” Paul says through gritted teeth, “And that was in…July? August? Maybe if they’d known just those few extra months they could’ve done something.”

“What exactly did you see?”

“I saw my friend looked like a fucking corpse,” Paul says, “I saw a preview of his horrible, agonizing death. And I didn’t do anything. Just told myself I was paranoid and went about my business.”

“Are you a fucking doctor on top of being a psychic mind reader who sees the future and dead people? Aaron told me Eric had to do all sorts of tests and shit ‘fore they figured out what was wrong. Could you’ve told ‘em where to look?”

Daryl sees that last question has caught Paul off guard, this clearly hasn’t occurred to him. “I…I could’ve done something…I know…even if it was too late to save him then Aaron would’ve known earlier that he was going to die. Spent more time with him.” Paul looks back to the cabin. “Anyway, say you’re right. You can be logical about this, but can he? Even if he knows that I couldn’t do anything…how…how could he ever look at me the same way?”

“You gotta trust him,” Daryl says again, “Trust yourself.”

Paul turns back to the cabin and studies it for a long time, before murmuring, “It doesn’t matter either way. He deserves to know, no matter how he reacts.”

“Man, I get it,” Daryl says, “When me ’n him talked I was scare’t so bad to tell him some of the shit I’d gotten up to. Actual bad shit I chose to be a part of. I can’t…I can’t tell you how he’ll react, but I know how he won’t. He ain’t gonna think you’re a mistake, and he ain’t gonna run off to a lawyer to draw up some divorce papers.”

Paul turns back to Daryl. His eyes are wide and pleading, “Will you…” he wets his lips, “Will you help me?”

Daryl blinks at him, “You don’t gotta ask. I’ll do anything I can.”

“Just…I need moral support more than anything. Someone to hold my hand,” Paul says.

Daryl can’t stop himself from snorting out a laugh, and when Paul frowns he explains, “Fuck, you two are somethin’ else. He asked me the same thing because he was too chickenshit to ask you to be his boyfriend. For months. Even rehearsed shit in front of a mirror.”

“He’s such a fucking dork,” Paul says, the corners of his lips twitching, “He told me about that, actually. The writing speeches, asking Sasha for advice…all of it.”

“Believe me,” Daryl says, “No matter what he told you he didn’t do it justice.” He hesitates, “Look, ‘bout what you were saying last night, not trusting your own mind…speaking as an objective observer I know he loves you.”

Paul is quiet for a long time, “I…I know that too. Knowing something in your head is different from knowing it in your bones.” He waits a beat, “It occurs to me I should’ve phrased that differently,” he nods toward Daryl’s grave, “Given your circumstances.”

“I’ll get over it,” Daryl says, “When do you want to try talking to him?”

“Does now work for you?” Paul asks, surprising him. Although Daryl supposes it really shouldn’t; once Paul makes the decision to quit running from something he doesn’t hesitate to run straight at it.

“Somehow I think I can squeeze it into my busy schedule of being dead.”

“Well then,” Paul says, “Let’s get it over with.”

***********************************************

Aaron is in the kitchen attempting an omelette when they return. He’s using his robot hand to hold the handle of the pan and his flesh and blood hand to flip it with the spatula. He doesn’t look like he’s been awake long; even though they’ve been trimmed what’s left of his curls are rumpled. He gives Paul an cautious smile when he sees him and raises the robot hand.

“Darth told me tell you he only broke two eggs,” Aaron says, “You owe him an apology.”

“Tell Darth I think he’s a fucking liar,” Paul says with a ghost of a smile, “I’m not afraid to dig through the trash and count the shells.”

The fingers of the robot hand curl except for the index finger, which points straight ahead, “Once I figure out how to make Darth flip you off it’s over for you.”

“So long as he doesn’t strangle me in my sleep,” Paul says.

“He’d never,” Aaron says, carefully transferring the omelette to a plate then giving the robot hand a pat, “Did you eat breakfast? I can make another one…”

Paul’s smile he wore during their banter fades until his face is a blank mask. He glances to where Daryl has sauntered in at Aaron’s side and takes a breath, “I’m not hungry. There’s actually…there’s something we need to talk about.”

Aaron goes still, his own smile fading, “Well, there went my appetite.”

“I’m sorry,” Paul whispers, glancing at Daryl again. On their walk to the house Paul told him he didn’t need Daryl to do or say anything, just be there. Daryl feels useless as fuck as he gives Paul an encouraging nod.

Paul turns away from them both, looking out toward the windows, “Can I tell you something,” Paul says, “Without you thinking I’m crazy?”

Aaron looks at him for a long time, “Not…not with an intro like that.”

Paul makes a wry face, “Deja vu. Do you remember…fuck, of course you remember. Me telling you about…about John coming to visit me. After, I mean.”

“Yeah,” Aaron says, voice tight, “You said it was just projection. Seeing what you needed to see. Like me with Daryl.”

Despite everything it hurts to hear Aaron say that. Daryl tells himself to follow his own advice and trust him, trust that he doesn’t really mean it.

“Do you think that’s what he is?” Paul asks.

“I…I don’t know. I think you were right, about it doesn’t matter either way.”

“What if it does? What if…what if you were right? That John just crossed over, and I didn’t know it. What if he was there…what if Daryl is here? An actual person, not a projection.”

“Well, then your exhibitionist fantasies have a chance to come true,” Aaron says, trying for a joke that lands flat for all sorts of reasons. Daryl guesses not the least of which is what Paul told him about how long it’s been since they’ve fucked.

“I’m being serious, Aaron,” Paul says, not meeting his eyes.

“Paul,” Aaron says quietly, “What’s this about? I know…” he takes in a breath, “You haven’t said anything to me, but I know the accident brought up a lot of stuff. Emotionally, mentally…”

“Yeah, you could say that,” Paul says.

When he says nothing for several long moments Daryl can’t keep his mouth shut, “Do you have any idea how fucking frustrating it is, knowing you two can straight up tell each other shit but are too busy being fucking pussies? Butch up.”

“Fuck you,” Paul snaps, “Not you,” he says quickly to Aaron. Breathes in, “I guess there’s nothing for it. John was there, I saw him. Daryl is here, I can see him too.”

Aaron stares at him for a long time, “What…what do you mean, you can see Daryl?”

“I mean I can see him,” he gestures toward Daryl, “He’s standing next to you, glaring at us and making unhelpful commentary.”

Aaron glances to where Paul indicated, eyes looking through Daryl. That shouldn’t hurt either, but it does. “Ok,” Aaron says quietly, “If you’re messing with me I honestly don’t have a sense of humor about him right now.”

“I’m not messing with you,” Paul says, eyes wide and pleading, “I can see him. Not just him, either, and not just John. Call me Haley Joel Osment because I see dead people. All the time, now. I used to be able when I was a kid, repressed it so much I forgot, and remembered after the accident.”

Aaron goes completely still, face blank but eyes wide and terrified. In a deliberately calm voice he says, “You’re telling me since the accident you’ve been seeing things? Hearing things?”

Paul gives him a disbelieving stare, then his eyes flick to Daryl, “Well, I guess it was a bit too much to have this conversation without you thinking I’m crazy.”

“You ain’t crazy,” Daryl says, glaring at Aaron, “Remind him how often he talks to me.

“Paul—“ Aaron starts to say.

“So you can talk to your fucking ghost, tell me you can just feel that he’s here, but when I tell you that you’re right and I can see him I’m crazy.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy, Paul” Aaron says in that deliberately calm voice, “But…but you just told me you can see ghosts…that you’re what, psychic? You’re the one who told me it’s all projection—“

“Well, I was full of shit,” Paul mutters, “Ghosts are real, there’s one standing next to you. Or you’re married to a nutcase.”

Aaron takes in a slow breath, then another, “Or there’s something physically wrong with you.” He glances down at his robot hand.

Paul looks doubtful all of the sudden, “I…I had a million CAT scans, everything was normal, none…none of my injuries were head injuries…” It’s bullshit and Paul has to know it’s bullshit, but Daryl can see a hopeful spark in his eyes, a drowning man reaching out for a lifeline.

Daryl could tear his hair out in frustration, “Goddamnit Paul, quit running away from shit you don’t want to deal with. You been doing that for over twenty years. I’m here.

Paul flinches, and looks over Aaron’s shoulder to where Daryl is sitting. He steels himself and says, “I told you, it was before the accident. Long before, I just…I just ignored it.”

“What’s that supposed to even mean, Paul? If it’s true how could you just…ignore it?”

“I don’t fucking know, Aaron!” Paul says, “I don’t know what this is, much less how it fucking works! Fuck, maybe I am crazy on top of being the damn ghost whisperer. But crazy or not it’s true. There are ghosts, and I see them. Including your ghostly BFF.”

“This is your fault,” Daryl mutters, “You’re the one who filled his head with all the projection shit.”

“You are being supremely unhelpful,” Paul snaps at him.

Aaron looks even more worried when he looks in Daryl’s direction, “Paul,” he says, back to his calm voice, “Please, you have to admit this is…this is a lot. If you’re seeing things we have to rule out—“

“He’s the one that made me pass out,” Paul says, “I somehow…I don’t know, channeled him? Not on purpose, like I said I don’t know how this shit works. Getting railed into the mattress was too much for his virgin ass.”

“Fuck you,” Daryl grumbles out.

“He told me about Maria Rovia,” Paul continues, ignoring Daryl’s commentary, “I looked her up this morning. Maybe some of that stuff’s real, maybe I’m like that.”

“Who’s Maria—“ Aaron starts to say, before blinking, “Oh, I remember. Look, those people…they were frauds.”

Paul rolls his eyes, “I know you think I’m crazy but I’m not gullible. I know it’s bullshit, but maybe…maybe some of it came from people who were actually the real deal. Listen to me, this is real. He’s here, he’s not a projection or a figment of your imagination.”

“Deja fucking vu,” Daryl grumbles in dismay, “He’s almost as bad as you were.”

“So, so, so unhelpful,” Paul mutters, then, “I suppose if you think this is all in my head I might as well get it all out. I see…I see some other stuff too.”

“Like what?” Aaron says, voice calm and detached.

Paul doesn’t look at Aaron, he looks at Daryl, and addresses his words to him as well, “I think…I know I saw that Eric was sick before he went to the doctor. Months before.”

Daryl is looking at Aaron, and sees the way his face changes before he says, “Shut up.”

Paul flinches, “I saw him. It was at Screen on the Green, the last one of the season, when I walked up to where everyone was sitting he looked like a skeleton, no one else could see it but I could. I’m so sorry, I didn’t…I didn’t want you or anyone to think I was crazy—“

Shut. Up!” Aaron shouts, then snaps his own mouth closed. Paul does. He still can’t look at Aaron, and the other man is looking away as well. Finally Aaron says, “What’s color is Daryl’s jacket?”

Paul blinks, “He’s not wearing one.”

Aaron is shaking, “What is he wearing? I never told you, I’m sure I never did.”

Paul flicks his eyes at Daryl, “Black t-shirt, torn sleeves. Pair of jeans with a hole in the knee, black motorcycle boots…”

“I could’ve told you and forgotten…” Aaron whispers, "Or...not like it would be hard to guess..." His face is white, he doesn’t sound like he believes what he’s saying, and is shaking harder than ever.

“Paul,” Daryl says, voice shaking just as hard, “Show him…” his voice dies out. The only thing that’s scarier than what he’s about to say was seeing Paul and Aaron hurt while being completely fucking helpless to do anything. He forces himself to grit out, “Show him my grave. If…if you start digging you’ll find my bones, show them to him…just…please, when yer done—“

“I’m not going to do that,” Paul whispers, “I don’t have to. He believes me, I can tell. He just doesn’t want to.”

Aaron still won’t look at him, and he doesn’t respond. Instead he walks out of the kitchen, past Paul, and paces the length of the cabin. Paul doesn’t try to stop him, just stares straight ahead, stoic. Daryl looks between the two of them, wanting to yell at Aaron. Being angry, truly angry, at Aaron is a foreign emotion for Daryl. He’s gotten annoyed with him a few times, there’s been times when Daryl thought he was being a dick, but nothing like this. He’s not just mad, he’s disappointed. He tries to take his own advice and trust him, that this is just lashing out in pain and fear and is therefore forgivable, but it’s hard.

Especially when Aaron comes back into the kitchen to fish the keys for the jeep out of the bowl on the table, still unable to meet Paul’s eyes.

“Where are you going?” Paul asks, sounding tired.

“Out,” Aaron whispers, “I…I need to…I can’t have this conversation with you right now.”

“The hell,” Daryl says, spitting mad, “You ain’t going nowhere, fuck’s wrong with you—“

“Daryl,” Paul says, and Aaron flinches, “Let him go.”

“Fuck that—“ Daryl says, lunging after Aaron as the other man practically runs out the door. Daryl almost makes it to the Jeep when he feels a familiar pull.

Paul, you fucking asshole!” he shouts, struggling against it as Aaron climbs into the Jeep, starts the engine, and drives off. He fights like hell but that pull is as strong as any time he’s been dragged along to their bed. It’s more than enough to hold him in place until Aaron’s passed out of the range of his haunt.

When he’s gone Daryl storms into the house guns a’blazin’ and ready to give Paul fifty kinds of hell that but his anger dies when he sees the way Paul is staring out the big pictures windows. His hands are held in front of him and he's twisting his wedding band and the expression on his face cuts Daryl down to bone. He drifts to Paul’s side and stares out at the valley.

“Sorry,” Paul says, “I…if he hadn’t left I would’ve needed to do it myself.”

“S’alright,” Daryl says, then, “Actually, no it ain’t. He’s bein’ a dick, and running off—“

Paul sighs, “He’s not running off, he needs to think. Hard to do with your crazy husband ranting to ghosts. Or your not-crazy husband who let your previous husband die because he cared more about people thinking he was crazy than his friend’s life.”

“If he thinks that,” Daryl says, “He ain’t half the man I thought he was.” Saying it out loud shocks him and makes him feel disloyal. “Fuck, he needs…you’re the one who made it so I could talk to him in his dream. If we figure out how I’m gonna give him a piece of my mind and then some.”

Paul smiles a little. Daryl doesn’t like the way he looks—tired and resigned and weirdly relieved. He thinks about what Paul said down by his grave, how part of him has been waiting for Aaron to see something that would change how he felt. It breaks Daryl’s heart and it pisses him off all at once.

After a long moment where the two men stare out into the valley Paul says, “Do you want to do anything?”

Daryl blinks at him, “What d’you mean?”

“I mean do you want to do anything,” Paul says, raising his eyebrows, “What do you do for fun, besides watch us? Do ghosts have fun?”

Daryl blinks again, “Um. Watch my animals some. Fuck with hikers on the trail.”

Another little smile from Paul, “You never fucked with us.”

“I was switched off,” Daryl says, “That’s when—“

“I know, Aaron told me,” Paul says, smile vanishing, “What did you do for fun when you were alive?”

Daryl shrugs, “Redneck shit. Hunt. Go out to the woods to blow shit up. Get drunk and rowdy at the bar. Play pool and darts. Watch football.”

“Never hunted,” Paul says thoughtfully, “I like to fish, though. It’s soothing.”

“I’d rather not go fishing’ with you if’n all the same,” Daryl says quickly, “It makes me nervous enough when you two go hiking alone sometimes—“

“I didn’t think to bring my gear up with me anyway,” Paul interrupts, “I’m recovering well enough but I’m still…I’m not a hundred percent, right now.” Paul is thoughtful, “How about a movie? Or maybe a game?”

Daryl studies him, “Why do I think this is you trying to avoid dealing with your own shit? Sit around playing a game while—“

There’s a flash of anger in Paul’s eyes, “I’ve been dealing with my shit nonstop since yesterday. My husband just walked out because he couldn’t deal with my shit, despite what you say maybe he is thinking of drawing up some divorce papers. I can either go over it again and again or I can do something to take my mind off of it. I’m not running away, I’m taking a fucking break.” His voice cracks on the last word and he puts a hand to his eyes. Daryl thinks he’s going to start crying again, and he doesn’t think he can stand to see it.

“Sorry, man,” Daryl says, drumming his fingers against his thigh, “Fuck, you’re right. What d’you have in mind?”

Paul sighs, “It’s too bad I can’t challenge you to a game of ping-pong. Makeup up for all your asshole shenanigans.”

“Yeah, dunno how it’d work as is,” Daryl says, “Or anything else, for that matter.”

“Well,” Paul says, “We’ll figure something out.”

***********************************************

Paul and Aaron have a small collection of board and card games. In the end they go with checkers. Paul sets up the board on the kitchen table then puts on some music—not one of his records because he doesn’t feel like getting up every other second to turn them over. Instead he pulls up his internet radio (yet another aspect of the future that can still catch Daryl off guard, having any song you want at the click of a button).

They play the first game without talking to each other much. When it’s Daryl’s turn he indicates where he wants to move by tapping the piece then the desired square. If he wants to jump over one of Paul’s pieces he mimes the action first then lets the living man move the actual pieces himself. Despite all the heavy shit that’s looming over them Daryl is…having fun. He loves watching people, loves fucking with the ball when Paul and Aaron play, loves the secondhand pleasure he gets when they make love. But this…this is the first time he’s done something with another person just for the hell of it in close to forty years. It’s not much but it’s with Paul, and even if he doesn’t talk Daryl enjoys being with him. Enjoys watching him sing snatches of the songs he recognizes, enjoys the pissy faces he makes when he’s losing.

“Best two out of three?” Paul says when Daryl takes his last piece.

“Ok,” Daryl says as Paul sets the board up again.

They play the first few rounds in silence again when out of the blue Paul says, “Sometimes I wonder if Eric knew how I felt about Aaron.”

Daryl looks at Paul, he’s studying the board and avoiding eye contact. Daryl reaches out and taps a piece then a square next to it. After Paul dutifully moves it Daryl says, “Does it matter?”

“Something doesn’t have to matter for me wonder about it,” Paul says, jumping over one of Daryl’s pieces and adding it to his collection.

Daryl taps a square indicating he wants to jump over Paul’s piece, then another, and another, all the way back to the king row. Paul stares at it in disbelief before picking up Daryl’s piece and following his instructions. Daryl captures three of Paul’s pieces in a single round and gets kinged.

“Fuckhead,” Paul grumbles, studying the board.

“You can be a pissy loser,” Daryl says, then, “He might not’ve known. Eric, I mean. Took me awhile to figure it out, just assumed everyone looks at Aaron with hearts in their eyes. Or fuck, maybe he did know, and it didn’t bother him. Coulda even made dying easier, him knowing you was there to look after Aaron when he was gone.”

“Or harder,” Paul says, “Knowing some other guy was going to try to take his place once he was gone.”

Daryl snorts, “‘Some other guy’. You said you was friends. Eric didn’t seem like an asshole from what everyone’s said. Why do you keep acting like you don’t matter?”

“You’re one to talk,” Paul mutters, “With your ‘I was a bad person and am going to hell’ spiel.”

“I was a bad person,” Daryl says, “Objectively speaking. Beat the shit out of people and robbed ‘em after. Looked the other way when my brother did worse. Helped sell drugs and guns to folks who did bad shit with ‘em. Left a little girl with a pervert who used her then passed her around to his friends to have a turn. Good people don’t do shit like that.”

Paul’s quiet, “If you’d had anybody who actually believed in you…you would’ve changed. Look at you now—“

“I’m dead,” Daryl says, “It changed my way of thinkin’, but too little too late if’n you ask me. ‘Heart of gold’ don’t mean dick if you don’t do nothing with the ugliness around you, or even see it ’till it’s too late.”

“I did bad shit too,” Paul says, “Objectively speaking. Probably got into more fights than you did—“

“I seriously fucking doubt that.”

“You’d be surprised,” Paul says, “Soon as everyone around me figured out I was gay…I got mean. I broke a kid’s arm once in the group home. Set fire to one of my foster families’ house—they were dicks but didn’t deserve that. I robbed some good people who took me in their home, just so I could buy drugs. Used a lot of nice guys for sex then ghosted them…”

“Ain’t much of a comparison,” Daryl says, “You did what it took to survive. You was on your own and had been through some fucked up shit. ”

“So were you,” Paul says.

“I had Merle,” Daryl says.

“I know you loved him, but to be honest that was probably worse than being on your own.”

“You don’t know shit,” Daryl mutters, “All you know ‘bout Merle was what Aaron wrote and even Andrea thought he did a shit job of it. Merle might’ve been a bad person, but I keep telling you so was I. If you think I can be forgiven then so can he.”

“Aaron loves you, of course he’s going to hate the guy who treated you that way; brother or not,” Paul says, “And maybe you wouldn’t require forgiveness if he did right by you.”

“The subject of my brother is closed,” Daryl says, ignoring what Paul said about Aaron altogether.

They play a few rounds in silence, and Daryl had no idea a person could play checkers angrily. Finally Paul says, “I’m sorry. It’s not…I know shit like that’s complicated.”

“S’alright,” Daryl mutters.

Paul sighs, “New topic of conversation. There are…there’s a lot of things about you I’ve been curious about. I mean, Aaron told me a lot, and there’s the stuff he wrote in the book. But no exact details.”

Daryl studies him, and nods, “Alright.” He drops his eyes and says, “Uh…same. There’s a lot about you Aaron told me, and a lot of stuff I watched you tell him. But it ain’t the same.”

“Too bad you can’t drink,” Paul says with a smile, “We could play a few rounds of ‘never have I ever’. My friends are assholes so I always ended up blitzed by the end of the night. ‘Never have I ever been arrested’ and ’never have I ever slept with my professor’ and ’never have I ever committed arson’.”

Daryl rolls his eyes, “Or we could just talk to each other. Ask me anything you like, if I don’t want to answer I’ll say so.”

Paul raises his eyebrows, “That simplifies things, I guess. I’ll start: When did you first realize you were gay?”

Daryl shrugs, “I dunno when, not exactly. I always…was always more interested in guys. Wanted to hang out with Merle’s friends when I was kid, there was this one, Alan…” Daryl bites his thumbnail, “I was real keen on him. Liked hanging around ‘im a bit too much. I knew something was wrong with me, knew I was different the older I got. Merle…I mean, he let me look at his skin mags and it just…just did nothin’ for me. When I was seventeen I went to the movies and there was a preview for this movie, The Long, Hot Summer…you know who Paul Newman is?”

Paul gives him a look, “Uh, yeah. When I found out him and James Dean touched penises it became a regular feature of my spank bank.”

“He what?” Daryl says.

Allegedly,” Paul says, “I choose to believe it. Dean was definitely into guys, though. Bisexual or gay.”

Daryl has trouble concentrating on his next few moves, and Paul has to prompt him to finish his earlier thought. “I just remember…there was this bit where he walked around without a shirt and I just…” Daryl frowns, “I mean, I’d seen all kinds of guys without their shirts, and it always made me feel a little funny. But that…I dunno if it was because it was on a movie screen, or…anyhow, I didn’t feel a ‘little funny’, I felt like was going burst into flame. Had dreams about for weeks after.”

“Young Paul Newman is an excellent guy to cause a sexual awakening,” Paul says, “Paul Newman, Aaron…you have good taste.”

“And you,” Daryl says because fuck it. Before Paul can respond Daryl asks, “My turn. When did you first know you were in love with Aaron?”

“I’ll steal some of your answer,” Paul murmurs, “I don’t know when, there wasn’t an exact moment. The first time I saw him I thought he was such a dork. A cute dork, but still a dork. Not my type at all, and with a cute, dorky boyfriend of his own that he was disgustingly in love with.”

“He told me ‘bout that,” Daryl says, “seeing you for the first time. Thought you was making moves on Maggie.”

“Of course he did,” Paul says. His smile is very sad, “What’s with people thinking I want to have carnal relations with Maggie?” He pauses for a moment and says, “With Aaron it was…I don’t know how much you’ve seen of him being the group therapist, since this is the place he runs off to when he could use a little therapy. But back in school he was just the guy you could go to if you were dealing with heavy shit. Like…Glenn got Maggie pregnant the beginning of their senior year. He—Glenn—was out of town when she found out, doing this seminar…she was trying to keep it a secret but we knew something was bothering her. I’m not sure how it came around, but one night she confessed it to Aaron and he’s the one who took her to Planned Parenthood for the tests and to talk about her options.”

Daryl is surprised, “I didn’t know that, I thought Hershel was…did she…”

“Miscarriage,” Paul says sadly, “Right after she told Glenn. It was hard on her and Glenn both, you know? I mean, it was totally the wrong time for them to have a baby, they weren’t financially ready to even try for little Hershel for years after that…but they both knew they wanted to get married and have kids some day. Maggie’s not as religious as she used to be, but still religious enough that even though she’s pro-choice having an abortion—or even talking about it—isn’t something she could do guilt-free,” Paul shrugs, “I didn’t know what to say to her or Glenn, none of us did. But Aaron…I mean, he didn’t know what to say either, he just this calm guy who listened when Glenn needed to vent and didn’t judge him for how he felt.”

Paul runs a hand over his face, “And…there’s no way to say this without me sounding like an asshole. There’s this…a lot of guys are shallow and obsessed with looks. Gay guys aren’t any different. Alex, my ex…I think the thing he liked most about me is how I looked. Not just how I looked, but how I looked next to him. Sexy Jesus. Sexy tiny Jesus who made him look even bigger and buffer, I think it annoyed him that I had as much muscle tone as I did, he would’ve liked me skinnier. Eric was a cute guy, especially when he smiled, but the kind of guys I dated wouldn’t have looked twice at him. Aaron always acted…” Paul frowns, “They’d been dating and sleeping together for years but Aaron could still get flustered when he looked at Eric. At Maggie and Glenn’s wedding Eric wore this amazing three-piece suit and Aaron kept looking at him like he was the only guy in the room. How fucked up is that, one of the reasons I fell in love with my husband was seeing him in love with someone else?”

Daryl doesn’t answer for a few moments, putting his thoughts in order, “If it’s fucked up then I’m the same. I think I fell in love with him when I first saw him, but…but seeing how he was with Eric and later with you…” He shrugs, “I dunno. Made me love ‘im more.”

Paul sighs, “He’s just always been this…stand up guy. Looks at the positive. I remember…he gave a phone interview for NPR awhile back and I overheard some of it. Interviewer asked about how he’s dealt with all the tragedy in his personal life or some bullshit, and his answer was something like,” Paul frowns again, trying to remember, “He doesn’t consider himself tragic, he considered himself lucky over all. Lucky he got to feel that way for someone ever since he was a teenager when people go their whole lives without ever experiencing it. That Eric being sick was the hardest thing he’s ever had to go through, but if it had to happen he’s lucky that it did when he was financially secure and could take the time to care for him,” Paul swallows and his eyes are bright, “Then he said some bullshit about how the luckiest thing he’s ever had was loving friends who supported him before and after, and one friend in particular…”

“Well,” Daryl says after several moments of silence and it’s clear Paul is done talking, “He ain’t wrong about being lucky. ’Specially the last part.”

Paul snorts, “I’m not sure if still thinks he’s lucky after all. We’ll see. Anyway, I’m not sure if I answered your question. Just…he was this cute dork who was a complete cornball, then this annoying Dad Friend who was so easy to wind up with my antics, then this stand-up guy who helped someone I love when no one else could, then when he planned to leave and I realized it was possible I’d never see him again…it hurt so fucking much. More than any of my other friends leaving that year.”

Daryl studies the checker board. As they’ve started talking they’ve stopped playing, he’s not sure who’s turn it is anymore. Just something to look at when what they were saying to each other was too much. He thinks of how much guts it took for Paul to tell Aaron all the things he did today, and decides he has no excuse to be a pussy. “That’s how I was with you,” he whispers, “First you was this asshole who called me ‘sexy dream ghost’, but you also looked after someone I love when I couldn’t. I was jealous of that, but I was glad all the same. Then I saw how nice you were, even after everything…and you was talking to Aaron how you woulda considered moving to Miami with Javi if the timing was different…I dunno. Thought of never seein’ you again hurt a lot.”

Paul doesn’t answer, and when Daryl glances at him out of the corner of his eyes sees he’s…staring at him, green eyes wide and soft. It makes Daryl want to hide, makes him wish that Paul couldn’t see him. “Anyhow,” Daryl says, clearing his throat, “Your turn to ask a question.”

Paul drops his eyes and is silent, fingers tapping against the checker board. “What would you have done if you survived that fight?”

Daryl considers telling him this isn’t one of the things he’s willing to answer but in the end he decides he’s been honest so far. May as well go all the way, “Prolly woulda stayed where I was. Had Merle smooth things over with Boyd. Maybe find some woman to date so I could go back on what I said ‘bout bein’ gay.”

“I don’t believe that,” Paul says, then, “Tell me about the girl. The one you couldn’t sleep with because she was an actual child. Aaron told me that’s what started the fight, you telling Boyd you may be gay but didn’t fuck kids like he did.”

“What ‘bout her? Told ya, left her with Boyd. Didn’t want to rock the boat none. Worst thing I ever did.”

“What was her name?”

“Lydia,” Daryl says, “Dunno her last name.” He squirms in his seat, “I know what yer getting at. I know what I’d do now, if I could go back. I’d’ve left that night and taken her with me, gone somewhere far away. But I’m in my fourth decade of bein’ dead and havin’ nothing but time to reflect on things. Subject is closed. My turn for a question. You got that tattoo on your chest, what’s it mean?”

Paul blinks and presses his hand briefly over his heart, “If you’ve been lurking around all this time surely you’ve heard me play the White Album.”

“I know that,” Daryl says, “But why’d you get it tattooed on you?”

“For my family,” Paul says, “My parents met at a Beatles concert. Memphis in ’66, he was seventeen and she was fifteen…” He gives Daryl a curious look, “It just…it just occurred to me that you were born before my parents, were alive at the same time they met, could’ve even crossed paths on their way to the show, they both lived in Atlanta at the time…”

“Probably wouldn’t’ve been a pleasant experience for ‘em if they were into that hippie shit.”

Paul smiles, “Of course. Anyway, my grandparents didn’t approve of Mom dating that no-good Rovia boy and split them up. They never forgot each other, though. Ten years later they ran into each other again and picked up where they left off, complete with my grandparents not approving. I’ve never met them.”

Daryl is surprised, “Not even when…” he trails off.

“They didn’t come to the funeral, no. None of my mom’s people did, and none of them were willing to take me in either, so off to foster care I went.”

“And yer dad’s people neither?”

“He didn’t have any. His own parents were dead and he’d been raised by his crazy aunt.” Paul looks thoughtful, “I…I never met her either, she was gone by the time we came around. But from what my dad said…I wonder if she was like me. Dad said she heard voices and would talk to people who weren’t there. Anyway, my parents were still into the Beatles when I was a kid, because of how they met. Mom would sing to us when we were sick, ‘Strawberry Fields’ was for John, ‘Blackbird’ was for me.” He turns to stare out the big picture windows for a bit, lost in thought. They’ve been jawing at each other for hours, and Daryl realizes it’s afternoon now. “What about you? What was your family like?”

“Daddy was a piece of shit,” Daryl says, “he came back from the War messed up. Like I said earlier I wasn’t a year old when he left to fight. Didn’t come back for over three years, first time I remember meeting him he went after Mama not an hour later. Merle’d get in the way when Daddy went after her and me. She…” Daryl can’t speak at first. “She died two years after Daddy came home. House fire, fell asleep and left the stove on. Sometime later I wondered if…” he has to stop again. He hadn’t told Aaron about this, Paul is the first person he’s mentioned it too for over fifty years, “Sometimes I wonder if she did it on purpose.”

“I’m sorry,” Paul says, “I…I can’t imagine. It wasn’t there fault, but for years I was just…so angry at my parents for dying.”

“I never was mad at her,” Daryl murmurs, “Even if it was on purpose…life hadn’t been kind to her. Merle run off for a bit after, came back when my Daddy died to look after me. Like I said, he wasn’t all bad.”

“Well,” Paul says, “Like I said. Neither were you.”

 

***********************************************

Aaron doesn’t come back all day. He sends Paul a brief text toward the evening to let the other man know he’s ok and will be back in a few hours, don’t worry about dinner. Daryl has spent the whole day talking with Paul and has almost forgotten how pissed at Aaron he is. The text reminds him, and he scowls at the phone in Paul’s hand as he taps out a response.

Ok. Take as much time as you need to wrap your head around this. I love you.

Aaron doesn’t respond.

“I guess I’d better make something for dinner,” Paul says quietly. He studies Daryl for a moment, “Can you…you said sometimes you feel what I do. Do you ever taste what I’m eating?”

“I…no,” Daryl says. He fidgets, “Usually I only feel it when…when it’s intense. Or…there’s been times when you were high or drunk I felt buzzed. Always went away whenever I thought about it.”

“That’s too bad,” Paul says, “I could’ve made something you like.”

“S’alright,” Daryl says, “I’d feel like shit anyways if you cooked for me and I couldn’t help none. Even chop vegetables like Aaron does.”

Paul smiles, “You should see him chop vegetables now with Darth. Loosing an arm made him want to learn to cook more than he ever did with both hands. Makes him feel useful.”

“I get it,” Daryl says, “Feeling useless is probably the worst bit of bein’ dead.”

Paul smiles again before getting to work throwing his dinner together. Daryl watches him cook, fascinated. “Chicken parmesan,” he says when Daryl asks what it is.

“Where’d you learn to cook?” Daryl asks.

“Anette Greene,” Paul replies, “During my year at the farm.”

When Paul sits down to eat he studies Daryl’s face and closes his eyes before biting down on his chicken and slowly chewing it. He swallows and opens his eyes, “Could you taste that? I was…I’m not sure how this works, but I was concentrating”

He’s so hopeful Daryl almost considers lying to him but instead he shakes his head. “Sorry. Sure it’s delicious.”

“Can’t hold a candle to Anette’s,” Paul says with a little smile.

 

***********************************************

They move outside after dinner, not talking as much, just sitting in the rockers listening to music and watching the fireflies dancing in the trees. Paul occasionally checks his phone but Aaron hasn’t sent anymore texts. Every time he does it his face falls and Daryl gets a little more pissed off at Aaron. Soon as he figures out how he’s going to give Aaron so much hell.

About an hour after the sunset Daryl glances over at Paul and sees leaned back in his rocker, eyes closed. He looks asleep but he’s just listening to the music. “I love this song,” he says, then sings along quietly, “I have got to find the river…bergamot and vetiver…run through my head and fall away…leave the road and memorize…this life that’s passed before my eyes—“

“Tara was right, you oughtta sing more,” Daryl murmurs.

Paul’s eyes open a crack and he smiles, “Tara’s going to be so happy if we figure out a way for you two to talk.”

“Me too,” Daryl says, “She’s my favorite of Aaron’s friends.”

“She will be very smug to know that,” Paul says, smiling broader, in that way that crinkles the corners of his eyes. He closes his eyes again and his smile slowly fades as the music ends and a new song comes on. The tune is familiar but it’s not until the guy starts singing that he recognizes it as the song Enid played at their wedding. Paul gets up without a word and goes inside. Daryl waits a minute before following him. He sees Paul fiddling with the remote that controls the speakers.

I don’t believe in the existence of angels,” the voice sings from the speakers, “But looking at you I wonder if that’s true—“

The music cuts off and Paul stands there in silence, jaw clenched. Finally he says, “I’m going to go to sleep. I’m still…I get tired so easily still.”

“Do you want me to clear out?” Daryl asks after a beat.

“Please don’t,” Paul says, “I don’t think I could take both of you running off.”

***********************************************

Paul isn’t asleep for very long when Aaron returns. Daryl jumps up from his position stretched out in bed next to Paul. 

Daryl glares at Aaron when he walks in. Paul sent him a text before he went to bed to let him know he’d be asleep. Aaron obviously got it, he takes great care as he enters the cabin and locks up the door. Daryl wishes he could yell at him without it waking Paul. Aaron looks tired and possibly like he’s been crying but Daryl is still mad at him.

Aaron kicks off his shoes and walks carefully to the bed. He’s carrying one of his eco-friendly tote bags in his robot hand, it’s full of shit Daryl can’t make out.

Paul doesn’t stir as Aaron sits on the edge of the bed, staring down at his face. Daryl hovers anxiously to the side; his anger at Aaron fading the longer he looks at the other man’s face. It vanishes completely when Aaron tenderly lays a hand on Paul’s cheek, fingers combing loosely through his hair. After several long minutes Aaron gets to his feet, grabs his canvas bag, and stands in the center of the room awkwardly shifting from foot to foot.

“Um. Daryl?” he finally says in a low voice, “If…if you’re here, would you come downstairs with me?”

He waits a few seconds, shifting from foot to foot again, throws a last glance at Paul, then goes downstairs to the rec room. Daryl throws his own look at Paul and drifts after him.

***********************************************

Chapter Text

When Daryl drifts downstairs he finds Aaron sitting on the floor between the couch and the coffee table. The entire room space is dim, he’s only turned on one lamp on the far side of the open rec space. Daryl drifts closer, eyes flicking to the couch and remembering the night Aaron kissed Paul for the first time. Remembered Paul’s words, about how once Aaron had to start dealing with his shit he’d remember how he really felt deep down. Despite everything Daryl knows that’s bullshit, how Aaron really felt had been written all over his face upstairs.

He’s drawn out of those memories by Aaron emptying out his canvas tote bag. The first item is a slender box still in plastic shrink wrap. Printed on the front in big letters is OUIJA BOARD; and beneath that in smaller type is “the mystifying oracle!” Daryl watches as Aaron holds the box still with his robot hand and slides the thumbnail of his flesh and blood hand over the plastic wrapping, peels it off, then shifts the grip so he can lift off the lid. Watching him do all this shit with the fingers on the robot hand whirring away is fascinating, seriously that thing is so fucking cool. It’s nowhere near the level of an actual hand but it hold things with a surprisingly delicate grip. Aaron sets the board up on the coffee table and Daryl takes a minute to study it. He’s seen these things in movies and has a vague idea how they work; the alphabet is printed out across the board, beneath it are the numbers zero through nine and “GOODBYE”. At the top left corner is a drawing of the sun and the word “YES”, on the right is a drawing of the moon and the word “NO”. Aaron glances at the instructions; there isn’t much to them, just a single typed page.

The Ouija™ Board

The Ouija™ Board (pronounced WEE-JA) has always been mysterious and mystifying. Ask it a question and it will respond by spelling out your answer in the window of the Message Indicator (Planchette)

Beneath that are instruction how to set the board up and Daryl reckons if you can’t figure it out for yourself you probably need to be told how to wipe your ass or aim your dick so you don’t piss on your shoes. Finally there is a short paragraph on how to use the board:

At least two players should sit on opposite sides with the Ouija™ Board between them, on a table or their knees. Set the Planchette in the center of the Ouija™ board. Place two fingers from each hand lightly on the Planchette. Now, concentrate! Players take turns asking questions and all should agree to the question being asked. Ask only one question at a time. Ask your questions slowly and clearly. And wait to see what the Planchette spells out for you.

Look into the future! Have Fun! And remember The Ouija™ Board is just a game…or is it?

“Seriously, man?” Daryl mutters, “Don’t know what this’ll prove. Don’t know if it will even work, it’s just a stupid game.” Daryl sees his own skepticism reflected on Aaron’s face even as the other man pulls out actual candles and sets them up on either side of the board then lights them. Once that’s done he frowns at the candles for a few seconds, that skeptical expression on his face. Then he goes back to his bag and emerges with a slim book that looks old as fuck, its binding worn away and the corners torn off. On the spine is printed:

A Life Among the Spirits by Maria Rovia.

Daryl feels a spark of excitement as he leans over Aaron’s shoulder as the living man pages through the slim little book until he comes to a chapter he has marked with a scrap of paper.

Chapter 4: On the Use of the Talking Board

The Spirits can influence the Mortal World only with the most extreme of difficulty. Manipulation of that which the Living have themselves set in motion is far less demanding for the Spirit to exert his Will…”

The language is stilted and old-fashioned but Daryl thinks he understands what she’s talking about and that spark of excitement flairs in him. Daryl knows from his own experience that it’s easier to effect the living world when he’s helping something along—like nudge a ping-pong ball a few inches farther in the direction it’s already going—then when he’s trying to do all the heavy lifting himself. Electronics are easier because some of that shit just wants to fuck up.

Aaron fishes his phone out of his pocket and sets it face up next to the board, tapping open an app called Dragon Dictation. Then he glances down at his robot hand with a frown; holds it palm up and taps a button that makes a little red light flash. “Sorry, Darth,” he murmurs, “Used you a bit much today.” With that he carefully removes the artificial arm and sets it down behind him on the couch cushions. Beneath the arm mount he’s wearing a cloth sheath that he peels off as well, then absent-mindedly massages the stump with his remaining hand as he stares down at the ouija board with that skeptical frown.

He glances at the instructions and mutters, “Two players, two fingers, two hands. Fuck. Well, here goes nothing. Um. Is someone there?” He places the fingertips of his right hand against the planchette and starts sliding it across board.

Daryl is shivering all over in excitement as he reaches out and places both his hands over Aaron’s one. He concentrates with everything he has; Aaron is the one actually moving the planchette but Daryl can help it along, can force all his will into (LEFT UP UP THERE MOVE IT THERE). Slowly, inch by inch, he guides the planchette to the little “YES” in the top left corner of the board.

Aaron stares down at the little message window, face pale and shaking. “Ok,” he whispers, “Who are you?” and starts moving the planchette again. Daryl carefully guides him to the letter “T”, pausing when Aaron says the letter out loud and a little T appears on the screen of his phone.

“Smart,” Daryl whispers, then guides the planchette to the letter A. It’s an excruciatingly slow way to communicate at first, each letter taking all of Daryl’s will to move Aaron along. But by the time Daryl reaches the letter ‘F’ he realizes it’s getting easier, and by the time he hits the letter ’N’ he almost feels like he’s moving the little plastic viewer by himself, it’s zipping across the board for the last four letters.

“U,” Aaron says, “E, S, S…” he frowns, and looks at the message recorded on his phone.

TAKE A FUCKIN GUESS

Aaron stares at it for a long time, breathing in and out. He looks hopeful and like he’s trying to not to be hopeful. “How do I know I’m not just going crazy,” he whispers. “How do I know both of us aren’t crazy? Folie a deux.” Aaron’s fingertips are still resting lightly on the planchette, and Daryl tightens his own fingers around them, willing him  to move. And Aaron…Aaron does, without seeming to realize it at first. Just a little, in fits and starts, like a car engine on a cold day. But like before the longer they move the planchette together the faster and easier it is.

R U ASKIN ME

WATS FOLLY ADO

Aaron looks confused, then, “Oh. Folie a deux. It…it’s French. Madness shared by two. Like when your husband says he can see ghosts, and you believe him and buy a ouija board and think you can talk to one…” As he says it he slowly raises his head, staring across the table in Daryl’s general direction. His eyes are so hopeful and so scared, “Daryl?” he whispers, “Are you…is that really you?”

YES

NOT CRAZY

U SED U CLD FEEL ME

Aaron stares at the garbled message with a frown and asks, ““Why do you talk like a fifteen year old texting his friends?” It’s not a serious question but Daryl answers it anyway.

FASTER

READ UR TXT

U DO IT 2

DICK

Aaron barks out a laugh, and Daryl feels like his chest has been replaced with literal sunshine. He grins so hard it would hurt if he had an actual face to grin with. Aaron stares across the table grinning his biggest, goofiest grin. Daryl knows Aaron can’t see him but the man is looking at him and knows he’s there.

“It’s…it’s you…” Aaron whispers, “I…I never thought we’d talk again.” There’s actual fucking tears in his eyes that he has to wipe away with the back of his hand, but he’s still laughing. He hastily places it back on the planchette and starts moving it across the board, “Have you been here this whole time?”

YES

“Why didn’t you…I hoped you would visit my dreams again, but you never did…”

WANTED 2

TRIED

CLDNT

SORY

The delight slowly fades from Aaron’s face and in a small voice he says, “That…that’s not true, what I said. I did dream of you…or I think I did…were you there? After the accident? Paul…he was talking to you, and for a second I thought I saw you…”

YES

SCARIEST EVER 4 ME

“Scarier than getting your skull smashed in by your brother’s asshole friends?” Aaron says hoarsely.

MUCH

PAUL ALMOST DIE

NEVR SEE HIM AGAIN

NO1 2 LOOK AFTER U

Daryl hesitates, tells himself to butch up, and guides Aaron’s hands some more. He spells the next message out slowly and deliberately, not taking any shortcuts or abbreviating.

I LOVE YOU

SO MUCH

AND I LOVE PAUL

HAPPY YOU ARE TOGETHER

YOU DESERVE HIM

HE DESERVES YOU

Aaron releases a held breath, and his mouth opens without a sound coming out then closes again. He clears his throat and tries again, “I love you too,” he whispers, “Ever since…maybe halfway through our conversation that night.”

Daryl tightens his grip on Aaron’s hands, forgetting everything in the explosion of pure joy. He hadn’t had the guts to say the actual words to Paul, and when he hinted at it the other man hadn’t returned or rejected the sentiment so he wasn’t quite sure where they stood. Even though Daryl can actually talk to Paul the man is still a cypher to him in ways Aaron isn’t.

“Fuck, man,” Daryl says, dropping his eyes down to their linked hands on the planchette, “We got to…” He trails off before he realizes what he’s seeing, then feels a lighting bolt’s worth of shock. Because there are four hands resting on the planchette—both of Daryl’s and both of Aaron’s. The robot hand is still on the couch cushions, what Daryl is seeing is Aaron’s left arm. His wedding band is even on the ring finger, although when Daryl looks up he can see that Aaron also has it along with the broken car key on the chain around his neck. The real ring is battered and twisted but recognizable.

Still not quite believing it Daryl runs his hands from the tips of Aaron’s fingers up his forearm to where the stump should be but all he feels is skin and warmth, solid and real.

Whoah,” Aaron gasps, startling him, “holy shit…fuck, is that you?” He’s flush and out of breath and there’s a few beads of sweat trickling down his forehead.

Daryl quickly removes his fingers from Aaron’s left hand and returns them to the planchette. There’s a weird doubling where Daryl can see four hands, then three, then four, then back to three.

YES

“What the fuck was that?”

UR LFT HAND

COULD SEE IT

TOUCH

DUNNO HOW

Aaron close his eyes and shivers, “Um. Well, don’t do it again, ok?”

SORRY

DIDNT MEAN 2 HURT U

SORRY

“You didn’t hurt me,” Aaron says in a high-pitched voice before babbling out, “I just…I’m a married guy, and…I’m not sure what counts as ‘cheating’ when the other man is a ghost and my husband also has exhibitionist fantasies about said ghost…but…I need to talk to Paul about it…”

When Daryl realizes what he’s saying he feels a bit like he does whenever Paul and Aaron kiss, almost like he’s fucking alive. That heady rush fades when he looks at Aaron’s face, he’s gone still and pale. “I need to talk to Paul,” he whispers, “Fuck…I shouldn’t have left like that…”

In the excitement and joy of their conversation Daryl has completely forgotten how mad he was at Aaron all day. This reminds him of it and dredges up a ghost of it.

NO

U SHOULDNTVE

DICK US MAXMUS

Fuck,” Aaron says, pinching the bridge of his nose and squeezing his eyes shut. He lets out a harsh breath, and another before returning his hand absent-mindedly to the planchette. He’s blinking back tears as he says, “I just…I needed…” he loses his battle against his tears and a few trickle down, “If what he said about Eric is true…I can’t…I’ll never forgive—“

Daryl jerks the planchette across the board before Aaron can finish talking, outrage making it easy enough he thinks he can move it on his own without helping.

DONT U DARE BLAME PAUL

Daryl wants to keep going, wants to tell Aaron that he has no idea what Paul has gone through, what made him turn off his abilities, that he hadn’t understood what he was seeing. Before he can Aaron jerks his hand back, staring at the message on his phone, “What…what are you talking about? Why would I blame Paul?”

U JUST SAID IF TRU U NEVER 4GIVE

“Maybe you should wait for me to finish a fucking thought,” Aaron says, “Fuck. Sorry I snapped at you, it’s just…just a lot…” He scrubs his face, “I was going to say if it’s true I’ll never forgive myself. Daryl…he told me.”

Daryl blinks at him in confusion. Aaron turns his head to the side and Daryl sees his jaw clench, “It was…late summer. July, I think…whenever the last Screen on the Green was…

“When we got to the park everyone was there but Paul, and Maggie told us that he and Fucking Alex were ‘on again’ and that piece of shit would be coming too, so of course they’d be late. And I was just…I was so fucking pissed off. I hated Alex so fucking much, even back then. We all did, but no one except maybe Maggie hated him like I did. I hated how he treated Paul, I hated how Paul let him, I hated how Paul acted when they were dating. And of course we all had to spend about half an hour we spent waiting for them to show up bitching about Fucking Alex. It was the first time we got to see all of our friends in months. I’d been working nonstop since the book was published, busier than I’d been while writing the damn thing. Tours, promotions, fucking…negotiating film rights. Talking to the architect about the cabin, moving to a new place in Atlanta…”

Aaron has to stop to catch his breath, regain some control before he continues, “They finally showed up, Eric waved them over, and when Paul saw him he just froze and did a double take. He stared at Eric all night, during intermission he pulled me aside and said, ‘What’s wrong with Eric?’ I asked him what the hell he was talking about, he looked at me like I was the one who’d lost his mind and said, ‘He looks terrible; like a fucking skeleton. Has he been sick?’”

Aaron puts his shaking hand to his face then, “Do you know what I said? I said he looked great, because he did, and I asked Paul if he’d gone crazy. Eric was always skinny, that night…he looked like he always did. Paul just looked…as soon as I asked him if he’d gone crazy he got this look on his face…doubtful and a little afraid. Finally he said, ‘Maybe it’s the light.’ And I…I said to him…”

Aaron stares straight ahead and says, “I told him he’d been ‘spending too much time at the gym with his roided out boyfriend and forgotten what we mortals looked like.’ I said it as a joke and he laughed it off, that was hardly the worst dig any of us ever made about Alex, but…fuck. He was trying to tell me something important, and I just brushed him off. Thought he was just being a jerk, thought Alex was rubbing off on him. It’s hard…I mean…I failed both of them.”

Aaron is quiet for a very long time, and he keeps his right hand clenched by his face. It’s just as well; Daryl can’t think of what to say to that. Or he can, he’s just not sure it’s something that he can spell out on this stupid toy board. He fidgets for a bit, wishing he could talk to him. Say it’s not Aaron’s fault for brushing off Paul’s concern, just like it’s not Paul’s fault for not realizing what he was seeing, or hell even Eric’s fault for brushing off his symptoms. After all, Daryl remembers that Aaron said he’d been having them for over a year, and he remembers Eric brushing off his “pulled muscle” right before his very eyes—

Something clicks in Daryl’s mind then; and he straightens. “Fuck man, put your hand on that goddamned thing, I wanna talk to ya…”

Aaron obviously can’t hear him, and Daryl has to stew in his frustration and wait. He considers going upstairs to wake up Paul but not seriously; he needs to talk to Aaron on his own for a bit. Finally Aaron wipes his face and says, “Sorry. I just…” He lays his hand on the planchette and starts moving it, “So Paul can see you, do you ever—“

Before he can ask his question Daryl is guiding his hand to a set of letters. He wished to hell this thing had a question mark as an option.

WAS THAT 1ST TIME P SED SMTHING WRONG W E

Aaron frowns at the message, “I…why?”

THINK

U SED E SICK 4 1 YEAR

“I…at least…pancreatic cancer can take a long time to grow…” Daryl can see Aaron wracking his brain, going over every single he’s had with Paul over the years. Finally he shakes his head, “That…that was the first time, the only time…”

Daryl nods, he thought so. Paul would’ve said something if he remembered any incident before then, and while he knows Paul’s memory is spotty and can’t be trusted he also knows he wouldn’t have kept something like that to himself. He would have told somebody at the time, maybe even Eric himself, and whoever he told it would have gotten back to Aaron. Unless it was Sasha. Daryl very slowly and deliberately guides planchette, then sits back as Aaron reads his message.

PAUL SEES THE DEAD

He wishes he could underline or otherwise emphasize the word “dead”, but he’s pretty sure Aaron understands what he means. He watches the living man turn it over in his head, face working. Finally he says, “You think…you think he only saw it because by then it was too late?”

YES

“We…we still would’ve known sooner, had those extra months—“

DOSNT MATTER

U DIDNT FAIL E

E CLDVE GONE 2 DR HIMSELF

U DIDNT FAIL P

JUST WAS A DICK

“That’s the third time you’ve called me a dick tonight,” Aaron whispers, although he doesn’t seem upset. At least not by that. He keeps his right hand on the planchette and raises what remains of his left to wipe his eyes again. He looks down at the stump, “You said you could see the ghost of my arm…”

DUNNO IF GHOST

CLD JUST SEE IT

TOUCH

“I kept it,” Aaron says, “The bones, at least. I don’t know why. They’re in a box in the Jeep. I thought about maybe burying them up here…or fuck, paying someone to put them together and carrying it around.”

THATD BE BADASS

Aaron laughs and gestures with the stump, “Scale of one to ten how ugly is it?”

8

BUT REST OF U MAKES UP FOR IT

ESP LEGS

“I remember you being shyer than this.”

PAUL BAD INFLUENCE

Aaron’s smile fades, “Well, Paul…I guess the rest of me doesn’t make up for it. He…he hasn’t wanted to…I mean…we haven’t…

Daryl hesitates, grits his teeth and makes himself spell out the embarrassing truth.

WE TALKED BOUT THAT LAST NITE

HE FELT BAD LYING 2 U

THOGHT U WLD BLAME HIM 4 E

GUILTY HE DIDNT DO MORE

THOUGHT U WLD REGRET MARRIAGE

Aaron swallows and looks like he might cry again, “I could never. Fuck, I really shouldn’t have left today…thank you for keeping him company.”

HE WILL UNDERSTAND

TALK 2 HIM

“I will,” Aaron whispers, “I need to. Fuck, Daryl. I just…these past six months haven’t been easy. I can’t shake everything, I just…” he takes in a deep breath, “I keep trying to hold it together because he needs me, but…” Aaron wipes his face, “Sorry, it’s…there’s so much I’ve wanted to talk to you about. Or at you, I…I’m sorry I keep talking about me—“

Y SORY

IM DEAD

HARD 2 TALK 2 U

CAN LISTEN THO

“We need to figure out a better way,” Aaron says, “I…you said you tried to come in my dreams but couldn’t. Was it…was it because Paul was there the first time?”

YES

I THINK

HE DOSNT KNO HOW

ACIDENT

Aaron turns his attention back to the slim little volume by Maria Rovia, “I didn’t…I didn’t see much about dreams, but I didn’t get much of a chance to look through this. I had to drive all the way down to Athens to UGA’s library to find a copy of this, why I was gone so long…”

Daryl is reminded of just how exhausted Aaron looks. Which makes sense even if all he’s gone through today was an emotional ringer and not a five hour roundtrip down to Athens on top of it. He glances at the time on Aaron’s phone—it’s almost eleven. Fuck, how long have they been talking to each other? It feels like they haven’t been able to say much, hampered as they were by Daryl having to painstakingly spell his responses out.

U SHLD SLEEP

“I want to talk to you, though,” Aaron says, “I’ve been waiting for almost five years.”

And holy fuck, Daryl wants to do the same. Wants to ask him all sorts of questions, wants to confess the whole peeping-Tom thing and apologize, wants more information on what happened after the accident. But shit like that seems beyond just using this board and Aaron looks wore out.

ME 2

BUT HARD THIS WAY

NEED BETTR WAY

GO 2 SLEEP

DONT WANT P 2 WAKE UP ALONE

“That’s a good point,” Aaron says. His voice sounds thick and teary, “Will you…you won’t go anywhere tonight, right? Or…switch off? Nothing like that?”

NO

LIKE BEIN W U WHILE SLEEPING

WAS LAYING NEXT 2 PAUL EARLIER

I CN GO IF U WANT 2 OTHER ROOM

“No,” Aaron says, “Of course I don’t want you to go. There’s plenty of room in the bed for a ghost. Maybe…maybe we’ll even dream of each other.”

ID LIKE THAT

****************************************************

They don’t dream of each other that night.

Aaron strips down to his boxers and curls up on his left side he can wrap his right around Paul and hold him close while Daryl stretches out on his other side. Aaron kisses the sleeping man’s cheek. “This is one of the few upsides of losing an arm,” Aaron murmurs, “Can spoon without it falling asleep.”

“C’n see how that’d be nice,” Daryl grumbles out.

Paul stirs a little in his sleep, “Aaron?”

“I’m here, pal,” he says, kissing him again, “I’m sorry.” He runs his hand down Paul’s arm and tangles their fingers together.

“What’s…where’s Daryl…” he slurs out without opening his eyes.

“I’m here too,” Daryl says, “Go back to sleep. We’ll talk in the morning. About everything.”

“He said he wanted to lay down with us,” Aaron murmurs, “I said it was ok.”

Paul doesn’t answer, he’s already back asleep. Aaron is awake for a little while longer before he falls asleep himself. Daryl lays next to them all night, not sleeping, the dead don’t sleep. All the same it’s every bit as restful and soothing as a year’s worth of being switched off, to be lying next to Aaron and Paul and knowing he is going to talk to them in the morning. Knowing they believe he’s there. Knowing that things are going to be ok.

Chapter Text

Paul wakes up first. Daryl feels it before he’s really aware of it and turns to face him. Daryl hasn’t moved since he stretched out next to them last night, on his back with his hands folded on his stomach. Paul shifts, face wrinkling as he struggles to stay asleep.

“Paul?” Daryl whispers, even though there’s no chance of waking Aaron up, “You awake?”

“No,” he says in a voice thick with sleep. There’s nerve-wracking moment when Paul opens his eyes and they focus on his face, growing wide and flashing with fear as he gives out a snort of surprise. It only last a few seconds, he sees that Paul registers who he is and watches the tension leave his body. “Oh,” he whispers, “It wasn’t a dream.”

Daryl watches as Paul gradually becomes aware of Aaron’s arm around him, hand still linked with his own. Sees the fearful and guilty look, and can’t stand it, “I talked to ‘im last night. Cleared some stuff up on his end.”

Paul’s brow wrinkles in confusion and he blinks, “What? Did you…did you figure out how to get into his dreams—“

“No,” Daryl says, “He was a wake. He had one of them wedgie boards.”

“Ouija,” Paul says, eyes sparkling with laughter before Daryl sees the last of the sleep fuzziness leave him. Paul sits straight up in bed, “You talked to him with a ouija board? I…how…”

“I went out and bought one,” Aaron mumbles beside him, startling Daryl. He hadn’t noticed Aaron was awake.

Paul’s face goes still in the way Daryl knows means he’s trying hard to stay calm and control of himself. He doesn’t look at Daryl, or at Aaron pushing himself up from the mattress himself, blinking the last of sleep out of his eyes.

“Why?” Paul says.

“Are you talking to me, or—“ Daryl starts to say.

“I’m talking to Aaron,” Paul says. He’s breathing carefully, controlled.

“Is…is Daryl still here?” Aaron asks, voice cautious and hopeful, “He said he wanted to lay down with us…”

“When you talked to him with a ouija board,” Paul says, still looking straight ahead.

“Paul,” Aaron says quietly, “Will you…will you please look at me?”

Paul’s eyes slide closed and he shakes his head, unable to answer. Aaron’s eyes grow bright, and he moves closer, cautiously wrapping what remains of his left arm around his shoulders and pressing his face against Paul’s head. “Ok,” he whispers, “I just…I wanted to say I’m sorry for walking out like that yesterday. It wasn’t…it wasn’t because of anything you did. I’m so sorry, when you said you saw Eric was sick I remembered, remembered you telling me and I remembered brushing you off and being a dick instead of listening. I don’t…” Aaron swallows, Paul is shaking in his arms, “I don’t think you’re crazy. I believe you; Daryl’s here. I talked to him last night…if you’re crazy we both are. But we’re not.

Paul makes a little noise and leans into him, turning so he can press his face in Aaron’s shoulder. Finally in a voice that shakes he’s able to get out, “Thank you for believing me. I’m sorry I…I know it’s been hard for you, with your arm, I’m sorry I’ve been too much of a mess with my own shit—“

“I’m sorry for being to much of a mess to hold it together and almost brushed you off again,” Aaron huffs, “Listen to us, trying to outdo each other in guilt and apologies.”

“Yeah, from my way of lookin’ at it,” Daryl says, “Neither of you has anything to be sorry for. Well,  Aaron a little for bein’ a dick, but I get it.”

“You’re still not being helpful,” Paul says, but he sounds amused. He repeats what Daryl said to Aaron.

Aaron smiles, “Well, let’s listen to him, call it even,” he pauses and kisses Paul’s ear, “I love you so much, pal.”

“I love you too,” Paul says. Daryl realizes he’s started crying.

After a few minutes Aaron says in a voice that sounds like he is also on the verge of tears, “Daryl? I don’t…fuck, I hope this won’t hurt your feelings, but do you mind…could you give us a minute?”

“Of course,” Daryl says, feelings definitely hurt even if he knows there’s no reason.

“I want to talk to you,” Aaron continues, “But I need to talk to him first, alone, I promise it’s nothing bad you did—“

“He said it’s fine,” Paul says.

“Yeah,” Daryl says, “I’ll just…I’ll go to my grave for a bit.”

“He’s going to his grave for a bit.”

“Thank you,” Aaron says, “I’ll…we’ll come down and talk later, ok?” he swallows and says, “I love you.”

“I…” Daryl says, unable to respond at the way Aaron just said it, “I love you too. Both of you. I’m gonna…I’m just gonna go now.”

He gets out of bed and speeds toward his grave as fast as he can, before Aaron or Paul can say anything else to him. His hurt feelings are gone, he’s just glad he has an excuse to be by himself for a bit. He’s more than a little overwhelmed, realizing it hasn’t quite sunk in yet despite jabbering away to Paul for hours yesterday, then later communicating with Aaron using the board.

They know I’m here. They can talk to me. Aaron says he loves me. Paul doesn’t seem to mind, even if he doesn’t feel the same…

At least Daryl thinks Paul doesn’t feel the same, but he’s not sure. Everything about his existence is different now, he’s no longer alone for the first time in nearly forty years.

He feels a bit like crying himself.

***********************************

Daryl isn’t sure how much time he spends sitting at his grave before he senses Paul making his way down the ridge. When he turns to look he sees Aaron is at his side, and as they get closer Daryl can feel him too. He gets hastily to his feet; feeling absurdly like a man who gets unexpected company on a day he hasn’t cleaned his house. He looks down at his feet and fidgets a little as Paul brings Aaron right up to where Daryl is standing and says, “He’s in front of you. To the left a little.”

Aaron looks in Daryl’s general direction; eyes not quite lining up to the ghost’s face but close enough to give him the shivers. “Hi,” Aaron says, sounding a little shy, “Sorry for leaving you hanging this morning.”

“It’s ok,” Daryl croaks out, “I know…I know y’all had things to talk about.” He watches Aaron’s eyes flick toward Paul when the other man repeats his words.

“We’ve been brainstorming,” Aaron says, “About a couple of things. Including figuring out a way for you and me to talk, it’s not fair to force Paul to be…I don’t know. An interpreter?”

Paul makes an exasperated noise, “I keep telling you I don’t mind—“

“Nah, he’s right,” Daryl says, “It ain’t fair.”

“Daryl said he agrees with me and you’re being stubborn,” Paul says.

Aaron rolls his eyes, “I don’t believe you. Another thing that’s not fair, having him be at the mercy of you being a menace.”

“Yeah, fuckhead,” Daryl says.

“Daryl says it’s hurtful that you don’t believe me, and he definitely did not just call me a ‘fuckhead’.”

Aaron rolls his eyes and grins, looking off at what he thinks is Daryl’s face as if to say, Can you believe this guy?

“You’re the one that decided to marry him,” Daryl says.

“And you’re the one who stopped me from leaving that night,” Paul says, smiling, “So ha; it’s your fault that both of you are stuck with me. Forever.”

Yeah, I owe you for that one,” Aaron says, taking Paul’s hand and giving it a squeeze, “And for lots of other things. I’m going to…I’m going to start paying you back.”

“You don’t owe me nothin’,” Daryl rasps, dropping his eyes even though he knows Aaron can’t see him, “Just…you coming up here all these years…if’n we’re talking about owing things. I can’t begin to pay you back for that. I ain’t…I was so lonely, before.”

When he looks at Paul’s face and see the teasing humor has vanished. Instead his eyes are soft with sympathy and a great deal of sadness. He repeats Daryl’s words to Aaron with no editorializing. Aaron’s eyes go bright, and he blinks rapidly before saying, “Well. We’ll do what we can to make sure you won’t be ever again.”

Daryl can’t begin to think of a response to that, just shuffles his feet. All three of them are quiet until Aaron steps forward a few feet and kneels down. Daryl takes a step back, bewildered, as Aaron starts rooting through the underbrush, a frown on his face. Before Daryl can ask what he’s doing Paul says, “It’s no good, pal. If it’s not rusted away it’s been buried over the years.”

“Maybe we can get a metal detector,” Aaron says,  and Daryl realizes he’s looking for Merle’s lighter.

“It,” Daryl says, voice choked, “It’s been buried, yeah.” Rain and wind has moved the earth, and inch by inch the lighter has vanished beneath ground. Maybe by now it’s wound up by Daryl’s bones, and he shivers at the thought. “Don’t matter where it is. I’d rather…I’d rather not have y’all digging things up ‘round here. If’n it’s all the same.”

Aaron gets to his feet and brushes the earth off his hand after Paul tells him what Daryl said. The two living men exchange a look that is charged with something Daryl can’t read; some unspoken message. Paul gives Aaron a nod and says, “Sorry about that. Come back inside, we’ve…we’ve got some things to talk about.”

****************************************************

“You two are such fucking nerds,” Daryl says once Paul has explained everything.

“Yeah, but you love us anyway,” he says, lips twitching, “What’s that say about your taste?”

Nothin’ good,” Daryl mumbles, dropping his eyes.

Last summer when Paul started working for Kirkman Studios he set up a “command center” downstairs to use on the days he worked from home. Desk, chair, a computer with a screen big enough it can be seen from space, printer, fax machine, filing cabin, and bullshit office supplies like paper and pens. It’s been gathering dust since they arrived but right now it’s covered in printouts, binders, and notebooks. Maria Rovia’s book is opened to a chapter titled Channeling the Spirits Through One’s Own Self, beside it is a pad with a few notes scribbled in Paul’s handwriting.

“He called us nerds, pal,” Paul says when Aaron asks for translation.

“We are,” Aaron mutters, paging through his own notebook. He’s divided it into three sections; the first page of each section has a “research question” on top and a bullet pointed list of ideas.

The first section is, “What can we do to help control Paul’s ability?” The list beneath it reads:

  • Research Maria Rovia/spiritualism. Do some genealogy research on Rovia family; find out if he has any distant relatives/ancestors with same ability.
  • Practice w/ Daryl; try experiments (if he can accidentally channel a ghost or draw one in can he also make it leave? Must be careful not to shut down/repress ability again
  • Channeling: how does it work? Including in dreams? Can either one be done at will?

“This is top priority,” Aaron says grimly, “Not being able to control this…thing has been bad for you. Mentally, emotionally, even physically. I mean, you didn’t know what you were doing and accidentally channeled Daryl then ended up passing out.”

“I disagree about it being top priority,” Paul says, “It’s not like I’m in any danger of dropping dead; we went through this over two years ago. So long as we’re here and it’s just Daryl I don’t mind seeing ghosts.”

“We don’t want you to be a shut in,” Aaron argues.

“I’m on Aaron’s side,” Daryl says.

Paul gives him a betrayed look, “You haven’t even taken a look at the other two sections—“

“Don’t matter,” Daryl insists, “And don’t you lie none ‘bout what I said.”

“Daryl agrees with me, right?” Aaron says, sounding smug, “Two against one, pal.” Aaron winks in Daryl’s direction while Paul grumbles. Daryl grins back at him, even if he knows Aaron can’t see him. Paul grumbles more and Aaron says, “It’s not like we have to finish one section before moving on, we can do a lot of this simultaneously. This is just an outline of the most important stuff.”

“Nerds,” Daryl mutters.

Aaron pages to section two, which is “Is there a better way for Aaron and Daryl to communicate?”

  • Daryl can manipulate electronics, test extent of this. Perhaps some form of typing? Apply principle of ouija board.
  • Why can Daryl see the ‘ghost’ of Aaron’s arm? Do the bones have anything to do with it?

Daryl swallows; he wants to talk to Aaron about so much, and it just isn’t fair to put the burden of communication all on Paul.

“This ties in with helping Paul,” Aaron murmurs, “Because we want to experiment on how some of this stuff works. If we can understand it better he can control it easier.”

“Good deal,” Daryl says, “What’s next?”

Aaron hasn’t heard him, but he still hesitates before paging to section three. Daryl peers over his shoulder and reads, “What happened to Merle Dixon? The rest of the Savage Sons? Lydia(LASTNAME?)?”

For a moment all Daryl can do is stare at that first question; Aaron has underlined and circled it. He glances down at the bullet point list Aaron has scrawled beneath it.

  • Get as many names, dates, locations, etc from Daryl. Start looking through death certificates, birth certificates, and newspaper records.
  • Maybe try crowd sourcing? Use Aaron’s twitter army to help.
  • Is Lydia still alive? She would only be in her fifties by now, might remember some things.

Daryl realizes that Paul is staring at him, green eyes soft and sympathetic. “We already did a quick google search,” he says to Daryl, “Before we came down to talk to you. There are databases we can look through, but we need some info from you if we want to start looking.”

Daryl nods, “Ok,” then, “Thank you. I know…I know both of you don’t think much of Merle, but…”

“He was your brother,” Paul says, “And we owe you a lot, it’s the least we can do.”

“Thank you,” Daryl repeats, “Ok…how…how do we start doing this?”

****************************************************

Daryl knows Paul and Aaron like to research, but this is the first time he’s seen them do it together and it just reaffirms what utter fucking nerds they are. They get so excited when they find some boring article in a newspaper database, getting up to show it to the other, excitedly saying, “Oooh, this database is new, have you taken a look at it? The search function is awesome, come here…”

They move upstairs to the kitchen table eventually, Aaron using his laptop while Paul and Daryl read from Maria Rovia’s book. At first Daryl feels useless but Paul asks him questions every now and then, asking to explain or verify what she’s talking about. The first few chapters Paul skims through, they’re mostly about her early life and education. He takes his time when he reaches a chapter called Spirits With Geographic Limits. Daryl isn’t sure he agrees with her assessment of the situation; she seems to think it’s a matter of a spirit being “confused” and “unaware of its state of existence, trapped by routine and familiarity.”

“Ain’t like that at all,” Daryl says, “I know exactly what my state of existence is, and this valley…I don’t know if I ever set foot in it before they buried me in it.”

“But it doesn’t make sense that you’re trapped here,” Paul insists, “John could go anywhere. Some of the ghosts that followed me could go anywhere.”

“Well, they was following you,” Daryl says, “I mean, you dragged me all the way to the accident and the hospital after.”

“Wait, you went to the hospital after?” Paul says, frowning. Seeing Aaron’s look he gives a summary of what they were talking about.

Aaron stares in Daryl’s direction before saying quietly, “We haven’t…you haven’t told us what it was like, on your end. What you saw…I mean, I know you were there, I remember…” he swallows, clearly not wanting to think about this, “I remember having trouble following what was going on, the medics trying to take me away from Paul…”

“Yeah,” Daryl rasps, and thinks that maybe “communicating with Aaron” needs to be bumped to top priority, it just isn’t fair for Paul to have to hear this and then repeat it, if the way he goes pale when Daryl describes what happened from his point of view.

“I don’t remember that,” Paul says when Daryl tells him that he kept wanting to go to the Next World, insisting that he could see it.

“Well, I told you to shut your trap soon as you started babbling ‘bout that,” Daryl says quickly, before Paul can ask if he saw the Next World as well, “You was scaring Aaron real bad.”

“I remember that,” Aaron says, “It…you sounded so far away. I remember…I had this idea that if I let go of you then you’d slip away, leave. Daryl told me he’d kick your ass if you did…”

“I do remember that,” Paul says, a smile at his lips. His face grows serious, “So…it was me, that pulled you in. Why did you leave?”

“We was in the ambulance, something…something went wrong, and next thing I knew I was at my grave.”

“That’s when you crashed, pal,” Aaron whispers once this has been repeated to him.

“Oh,” Paul says quietly.

“What’s that mean, ‘crashed’?”

“Means my heart stopped for a few minutes and they needed to resuscitate me,” Paul says.

“The medics had to tell me about it,” Aaron says, “Because I don’t remember it happening, thank fucking god. They said they had to sedate me. I think the last thing I remember is dreaming about Daryl telling me he’d stay with you. Or…or not dreaming.”

“I was unconscious after that, for days,” Paul says, “But I brought you to the hospital somehow. What happened?” When Daryl tells him he says, “Wait…you just showed up in Aaron’s hospital room? Other side of the fucking world from where I was at?”

Daryl frowns, “Guess so. But it was still you that did it—“

“So why didn’t you materialize in the ICU?” Paul says, “You said when I pulled you in the first time you were just minding your own business, but the second time you’d been trying to leave.”

“I…fuck, I don’t know,” Daryl says, “I just…I mean, I still tried just as hard to get back to you and I couldn’t.”

“I think you’re the one that did it,” Paul says stubbornly, “The second time, at least. Once you saw Aaron I were both alive you weren’t as frantic.”

“You think I ain’t tried to leave this place before and since then?”

“Hey, no arguing when I can only hear one side of it,” Aaron says.

“Sorry,” Paul says, shooting a look at Daryl

“We’re figuring out how this works, let’s remember Sherlock Holmes,” Aaron continues, “Don’t twist facts to suit theories and all that.”

“Fine,” Daryl says, “Let’s talk about facts then.”

“Fact—Daryl can leave,” Aaron says, “We don’t know how. Fact—Paul can…what do you call it, pull Daryl in?”

“Sounds a little dirty when you say it like that,” Paul says with a smile.

“Maybe we can go to the edge of Daryl’s range and you can try pulling him along with you, see if he can leave that way,” Aaron continues with his cheeks a little pink, “Also Daryl can possess you, or you can channel him,” he frowns, “How did it happen? I mean,” he cheeks turn an even darker shade of pink, “Paul said it was…um…that time he passed out.”

Daryl squirms in embarrassment and explains how he just grabbed Paul’s hand and it happened, and Paul suggests they try doing it now.

“Take my hand, Daryl,” he says, “Let’s see if maybe—“

“No,” Daryl says, drawing away from him, “Last time it hurt you.”

“I can’t believe how much you two are babying me—“

“You know what,” Daryl snaps, “I do remember being in that car and in the back of that ambulance, and I ain’t gonna do nothing that might hurt ya. Not after that, you ain’t got no idea how scary it was—”

“You’re right, I have no idea how scary being trapped in a car while someone you love is dying, how silly of me to think I did,” Paul snaps back.

“What did I say about the two of you arguing?” Aaron says, laying his hand on Paul’s wrist, “We’ve got time to figure this out, pal. And I agree with Daryl, we shouldn’t rush into things without learning all we can first. It’s not just you, last time you said it made Daryl switch off. It could hurt him too.”

Paul looks chastened at that, even if Daryl couldn’t give a flying fuck if he himself was hurt. Part of him wants to argue that switching off isn’t the same as being hurt but if it will put the brakes on Paul’s recklessness he’ll keep his trap shut. Finally Paul says, “Ok, sorry. I think I’ll be fine, but I get why you’re scared and I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I just…” he trails off and exchanges a glance at Aaron, “we just want to do what we can for you. I want…if I can help you leave this place, or if…I don’t know, get some vicarious enjoyment from being in my body…”

“That definitely sounded dirty, pal,” Aaron says, waggling his eyebrows at Paul, who smiles back at him faintly.

“Just a bit,” Daryl agrees, fidgeting a little in embarrassment at what Paul was offering. Vicarious enjoyment. He gets plenty of that already, no need to risk hurting Paul.

Aaron sighs and says, “Fuck, it’s five o’clock. I’m starving; I think it’s a good time to take a break. Daryl, is there any you’d like to watch on TV? Or I can maybe pull up an article for you to read.”

“Why would I want to watch TV?” Daryl asks, baffled.

“Oh,” Aaron says when Paul relays the question, “If you can’t eat I just didn’t want you to be bored.”

“I ain’t never bored when you two are around.”

****************************************************

As they work together to prepare dinner Daryl starts to slowly become aware of a growing tension inside him. It’s not blatant, more like the background humming of a refrigerator. Even if he couldn’t feel it he has eyes and has observed Paul and Aaron enough over the past few years to know that they’re both sending out “I want sex” signals that can be seen from space. The way Aaron brushes his hand on the small of Paul’s back, the way Paul holds up a spoonful of sauce for Aaron to try, the way they smile and kiss after. The way Aaron does one of his dorky dances to the music until Paul is forced to playfully wrap his arms around him to make him stop.  Daryl wonders if they realize what they’re doing. He feels like he needs to say something, point out that he can’t leave. Aaron’s worse about it than Paul, he can’t actually see Daryl and seems to halfway forget that they have an audience.

That tension inside him flares, and he shifts on his chair uncomfortably. Daryl starts to wonder if they’re even going to be able to finish cooking at this rate. He gets another flare of tension when Aaron kisses Paul’s cheek. Daryl tries to get up, to move, and he can’t. He’s already locked in place.

“Paul,” Daryl rasps out, “I…I can’t leave. If you two…if you want…”

“Huh?” Paul says, confused.

Daryl grits his teeth, “I can’t leave. If you two want to…” Fuck, make love, have sex, saying them all out loud is embarrassing as hell, “…sleep together you have to figure out how to let me go soon.”

Paul blinks at him in surprise, stepping away from Aaron, “I…what are you talking about?”

Annoyance and frustration wins out over embarrassment, “I know it’s been six months, but I know you ain’t forgot ‘bout the birds and the bees.”

Paul flushes, throwing a guilty look Aaron’s way, “I…that’s not…”

“What’s he saying?” Aaron says, and yeah, they need to figure out a way to talk without Paul as an intermediary because the other man mumbles out something about Daryl reminding them he’s there.

Daryl lets out an exasperated noise, “I keep tellin’ you when yer like this I can feel it. And stop being a dick and editing what I got to say.”

“It’s…” Paul throws a guilty look Aaron’s way, “Don’t worry about it, ok?”

“Don’t worry about what?”

“You two are fucking married, Paul!” Daryl snaps, “I mean maybe shit’s different these days but I was under the impression wanting to jump your husband ain’t something you gotta be ashamed of.”

Paul throws him an irritated look, one Aaron catches, “What’s wrong?” he asks, “What’s Daryl saying?”

Paul lets out a breath, “You’re right, sorry. He just…he was telling me he can’t leave,” he looks incredibly shy, “Because…um…when I want to jump you he can feel it, like we said…”

“Oh,” Aaron says. He blinks a few times as understanding unfolds across his face. His voice is strangled, “You…you want to jump me? As in…a sex type of way? Now?”

“Your way with words never fails to astound. No wonder you’re a bestselling novelist,” Paul says. He’s going for teasing and sarcastic but his voice is just as strangled as Aaron’s. Daryl can see that his pupils have gone wide and dark.

“Does that mean yes or no?” Aaron says in that strangled voice; eyes wide and hopeful. Daryl is suddenly very glad that Paul and not Aaron is the one he gets secondhand arousal from.

“Yes,” Paul says, “Ok, let me just…try…” He closes his eyes and starts taking long, slow breaths. Aaron is staring at him with his face frozen and eyes wide. His nostrils flare and his own breathing picks up as Paul tries to slow his. “Pal, you aren’t helping,” Paul says.

“Sorry,” Aaron says, moving to the other side of the kitchen. The way he’s looking at Paul is setting Daryl off more, fuck, he needs to leave, give them privacy—

He only gets a few feet away before feeling that fish hook tug in his gust pulling him right back, equal distance between Paul and Aaron. “God damnit,” Daryl spits out, “Sorry.”

Paul huffs out a breath, “Fuck, let me try again. Maybe I can take a cold shower or something—“

“Or we could drive the Jeep out of his range,” Aaron says, smiling in a way where he wants them to think he’s joking but he is so obviously not.

The look Paul gives him makes Daryl think even a cold shower won’t help, “I…I wouldn’t be opposed to that.”

“Oh,” Aaron says. He’s breathing even faster.

“I’m sorry,” Daryl says, “Shit…I don’t…try again Paul, you shouldn’t have to leave yer own dang house because of a peeping tom ghost—“

Paul flushes again, and looks over at Daryl with those heated eyes and says, “You don’t mind? You said you liked watching us earlier…”

“He does?” Aaron says, looking at what to him must be empty space.

Daryl would give anything to be able to flee back to his grave for the next century, “Thanks for blurtin’ that out. Anyhow, try—“

“You know we’re not worried about us, right?” Paul interrupts, “We’re worried about you.”

“I…what?” Daryl says.

Paul breathes out, “Aaron, do you mind if Daryl watches us?”

“At this point,” Aaron says in that low feral growl that makes Daryl’s toes curl, “You can film it and broadcast it over the internet for all I care.” He forces out a few calming breaths, “He…uh…he’s sure he doesn’t mind?”

Daryl can’t move, all he can do is stare. “Daryl,” Paul says carefully, “I’m asking you right now if you mind us doing this in front of you. If you do and you can’t leave we’ll go, or I’ll take that cold shower.”

“I…” Daryl sputters, any brazen confidence he had earlier when he told Paul they were married and shouldn’t be embarrassed that they want each other is gone. “Why would I mind…I thought you two wouldn’t want…”

“Consent is important, Daryl,” Paul says, gritting his teeth, “Before we didn’t know, now we do, and we shouldn’t…we don’t want you to force you into something.”

“Like what?” Daryl’s voice is high, almost panicked, “I…I don’t do nothing, just watch—“

“Watching is something,” Paul says, “Do you want to?”

Fuck, of course he wants to, he has to fight that urge to stay in more ways than one. Wants to watch them kiss, wants to stare at their arms and legs tangle as they move together, wants to feel that secondhand pleasure he gets when Paul is being touched, wants to have a flesh and blood body that can do more than just watch. “Paul,” Daryl says, voice a whine, “I…you know I do…”

“He says it’s ok with him,” Paul says to Aaron, “And before you ask: yes, he’s sure. I can feel it.”

“Ok,” Aaron says, “Turn off the oven so we don’t burn the house down and get over here.”

Paul whips around and does as he says, making sure the burners are turned off with trembling hands as well as the oven. Their meal is trashed but they obviously don’t care. The two seconds it takes for him to complete his tasks is too much for Aaron, he’s halfway across the kitchen then Paul is rushing at him. Paul raises his arms to Aaron’s shoulders at the same time the other man’s hands go to his waist…

Only for Aaron to whack Paul in the belly with his artificial arm, making him gasp and stumble back,  Aaron’s eyes go wide, and for a split second something flashes across them that frightens Daryl, guilt and self-loathing and uncertainty.

“Sorry!” Aaron says, “Fuck, sorry—“

Before he can finish Paul straightens up and lunges for him, grabs him by the upper arms and pulls him close, then gets up on his tiptoes to attack his mouth. After a moment’s stiffness Aaron melts against him, moaning a little. Unbelievably Paul is laughing, and in between kisses he’s able to get out, “See, I told you he wants to kill me, definitely planning to strangle me in my sleep—“

“I won’t let him,” Aaron says, breathy with laughter himself as he holds his left arm awkwardly to the side while he slides his right hand down to Paul’s ass, squeezing it so hard his knuckles turn white. “I’ll bury him out in the woods.”

“He’ll just crawl back inside,” Paul says, fumbling with the hem of Aaron’s shirt, “Just like all those damn spiders you trap under a glass instead of crushing.”

“I’ll run him over with the Jeep, then,” Aaron says, disentangling himself enough to start undoing the straps that hold his arm in place and the little sensors that respond to his muscle movements.

“Here, let me help—“ Paul says, abandoning the hem of Aaron’s shirt to help him remove the arm, and to carefully lay it on the table despite cracks about running it over or abandoning it in the woods. Then he goes for the cloth sheath that covers the stump, and Aaron pulls back.

“What?” Paul asks, drawing his eyebrows together.

“I…” Aaron flushes, “I thought maybe it would be best if I left it on—“

Paul frowns, “Why? You don’t wear it when you sleep—“

“I really hope we won’t be doing much sleeping,” Aaron says, when he sees the expression on Paul’s face he says, “I know it’s ugly, and if we’re—I know last time wasn’t…”

Aaron,” Paul says, “Last time wasn’t about you.”

“I know,” he says, awkward and embarrassed, “I…I just…look, I really want to do this and if it turns you off—“

Daryl feels that tension in him dim, sees Paul open his mouth, and thinks the mood might’ve been killed. At least enough for him to leave, he should try it.

Instead he croaks out, “Remind ‘im what I said ‘bout his legs.”

“What?” Paul says, turning to him in confusion. Daryl’s glad he’s dead and can’t blush, even if Paul can probably sense his rising tide of mortification.

“Did…did Daryl say something?” Aaron asks.

“Just to remind you what he said about your legs…” he quirks an eyebrow at Aaron, “Which was?”

Aaron can blush, and he does so now, “He. Uh. I asked him to rate how ugly the stump is, he said an eight but that my legs made up for it.”

“Well,” Paul says, carefully pulling the sheath off of Aaron’s stump, “he’s not wrong. You do have some killer stems.” His hands go to the hem of Aaron’s shirt, “Rest of you isn’t bad either,” he says as he pushes Aaron’s shirt up and off. He’s just the perfect height to duck his head down and lick Aaron’s nipple, making the other man shiver. Aaron uses his remaining hand to grab a fistful of Paul’s hair and using it to jerk his head back. Daryl feels the flair of pain vividly and it makes him feel hot and shimmery. Aaron kisses Paul again, just a little rough, and Daryl feels that to. He always feels something when they fuck, but this time…

This time it’s closer to how it felt that one night when Paul accidentally channeled him. Not exactly like that, he can’t feel blood coursing through his veins or taste Aaron’s mouth but it’s a hell of a lot more intense.

Fuck,” Daryl gasps out, then clamps his hand over his mouth when Paul breaks away from Aaron to look at him, “Sorry,” he says, “Just…I’ll keep my trap shut.”

“Paul?” Aaron asks.

“Daryl’s being a little noisy, is all,” he replies, out of breath.

“Oh yeah,” Aaron, cheeks burning, “Is…is there anything he doesn’t like? I mean,” his breathing picks up even faster, “You said…he can feel it when I touch you, is there…is there something he wants us to do?”

Daryl stares at the two of them. He’s always felt guilty watching them, no matter how much he knows he can’t help it. Now he’s watching them with their express consent and they’re asking him if he has a favorite…what? Position? Act? He tries to imagine himself saying some of the shit Aaron does when he’s close, or some of the shit that’s in the porn videos, but fuck. He feels embarrassed just thinking it.

“I think you broke him,” Paul huffs out. He’s staring at Daryl again with heated eyes, “I wish you could see him, it’s the hottest thing.”

“I…” Daryl says, all the words dying in this throat. Paul calling him “the hottest thing” when he has a shirtless and disheveled Aaron in his arms, maybe Paul couldn’t really see him.

“Wish I could too,” Aaron says, pulling Paul in for another kiss, one that uses a lot of tongue and has Daryl squirming in his chair.

“Guess you’ll have to make do with just seeing me,” Paul says, and Daryl can hear the smile in his voice.

“I’ll survive somehow,” Aaron says, fumbling with Paul’s shirt, “Goddamnit. Ok, future reference—Darth stays on until you’re naked, I can’t do this one-handed.”

“You just need to practice,” Paul says with a grin, pulling his own shirt off over his head. Like Aaron he’s thinner and has less muscle than when Daryl saw him last but he’s still beautiful. Even with the scars on his chest—the one where he’d been impaled by the scrap metal, and one beneath his ribcage that is long and thin and looks surgical. Aaron’s eyes flick down to those scars and his jaw clenches briefly. Paul notices, and gives a little smile, “Daryl? Scale of one to ten: how ugly are they?”

“I…” Daryl rasps out, unable to think of what to say.

“Ass,” Aaron mutters, covering Paul’s mouth his own before he can ask Daryl anymore questions. Then he marches Paul backward through the kitchen, into the living area, all the way to where their bed has been set up. Daryl is drifts after them, now that he’s not fighting that pull it’s like he feels everything himself—Aaron’s bare torso against his (Paul’s) own, a blissful sensation of falling when they reach the bed and tumble in, the painful/pleasurable way his (Paul’s) dick strains against his jeans, the scrape of Aaron’s beard against his (Paul’s) lips.

Daryl hovers by the bed as the two men kiss, slow at first, then frantic, legs tangling together as they grind against the other. Aaron breaks away from Paul’s mouth so he can kiss his neck and shoulders, remaining hand clutching at skin, desperate. He’s frustrated again when he gets to Paul’s jeans, fumbling at them one handed until the other man helps. Aaron turns his attention to his own pants, shaking hand fumbling at his zip until Paul tackles him, pinning his shoulders against the mattress. Aaron struggles against his grip but Paul is stronger even if he’s thinner and still recovering from actually dying less than a year. He lets go only long enough to pull off Aaron’s jeans and boxers. After that they melt together, Aaron’s long legs winding around Paul’s waist.

God,” Daryl moans out, unable to help himself. The sight of the two of them coupled with the secondhand feeling of skin against skin is unbearable, overwhelming. Paul breaks away from Aaron long enough to give Daryl a heated look before slowly and deliberately rubbing his dick against Aaron’s, making little sparks of pleasure flash through Daryl’s entire being.

“Could you feel that?” Paul asks unnecessarily.

“You know I can,” Daryl rasps.

“Where is he?” Aaron whispers, trailing his right hand down Paul’s back, strong fingers slipping in between the crack of his ass and teasing.

Paul shivers and says, “Right there, hovering…”

“He can feel this?” Aaron says, fingers more insistent, rougher.

“Says he can,” Paul says, going back to thrusting against Aaron’s dick.

“Does he like it?” his voice is a growl.

“Ask him yourself,” Paul gasps, speeding up his hips.

“Daryl?” Aaron says in that rough voice, arcing up into Paul’s thrusts, holding the other man tight with his shortened arm while his other hand works between Paul’s legs.

Fuck’s he want me to say,” Daryl whines, feeling like he’s going to go crazy. It’s not quite the level of when Paul channeled him but it’s far more intense than normal. The doorway’s wide open, and beside that just the knowledge that the two men know he’s there, that Aaron is clearly getting off on the fact that whatever he does to Paul is felt by Daryl, that he wants to know if Daryl fucking likes it, as though there existed a universe where he didn’t.

“You broke him again,” Paul whimpers before crashing his mouth back down over Aaron’s.

Daryl thinks Paul might be right, he feels like he’s breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, like a ship being pounded by the storm. Without having any memory of doing so Daryl finds himself stretched on his back in bed beside the two men, eyes crawling all over them and fighting the urge to touch. Occasionally Paul makes eye contact but his focus is mainly on Aaron. They kiss with increasing desperation, rubbing off against each other, Aaron’s hand moving between their bodies to wrap around both their dicks. The tension mounts and Daryl writhes in the sheets, it’s unbearable, if he were alive it would kill him, his hands scrabble blindly across the sheets until he feels a warm hand take his own.

Daryl has a split second’s terror, he hadn’t wanted to get too close, hadn’t wanted to risk Paul losing control and channeling him. That terror vanishes before it’s fully formed, because when he looks down it isn’t Paul’s fingers linked in his on, it’s Aaron’s. His left arm and hand are there, and he’s clutching Daryl so hard it hurts. Without thinking Daryl slides his thumb over the skin and Aaron convulses, crying out a nonsensical, “Holy Jesus Christ fuckingfuckgodohhod” as he comes. Paul follows almost immediately after, and waves of relief and pleasure wash over Daryl with such intensity he feels himself flicker, not quite to the point of shutting off but close to the edge of it.

“Oh holy shit,” Aaron gasps out. He’s shaking and Paul doesn’t look much better.

“No fucking kidding,” Paul replies when he’s able to catch his breath.

Daryl opens his mouth to say something but no words come. He’s loose and dreamy, thinking that if he turned his head and saw the Next World he’d simply float on over.

“What was that,” Aaron says in a voice that still shakes, “Daryl, was that you?”

“I dunno,” he says. He doesn’t have to breathe and is therefore not out of breath, so forming words shouldn’t be this difficult, “Sorry. Your hand was back for a minute, you grabbed me…next time I’ll sit farther away.” The hand in question is gone now; the stump is resting on the sheets by Aaron’s face.

“Don’t you dare,” Aaron pants out after Paul has repeated this, words slurring a little, “Unless…unless you didn’t like it. That was…fuck.”

“Yeah,” Paul breathes, then, “It was like…I could feel him feeling me…just…bouncing back and forth…”

“Whatever it was,” Aaron whispers, “It was…it was very special…Daryl? Was that…was that ok?”

Daryl wants to say that it was about ten miles above just ok; that he feels almost alive, can feel ghosts echoes of skin against skin. Gradually it penetrates his mind that his presence somehow made it even better for the two living men, that Aaron had just claimed it was ‘special.’

“Wasn’t bad,” Daryl replies in a high-pitched voice.

Paul starts laughing then, and even though there’s no way Aaron could know what gave him the giggles he starts laughing too. It’s contagious, Daryl finds himself huffing out laughter and grinning.

“I think we’ve identified a new research area,” Paul says “Something that’s going to require more experimentation and less reading,” Paul murmurs.

“I think I can live with that,” Aaron says, “I’ll add it to the notebook. Maybe even highlight some things.

“Nerds,” Daryl says.

Paul doesn’t bother to protest or even tell Aaron what Daryl said. Instead his eyes are drifting closed, as are Aaron’s. Daryl closes his own eyes in solidarity more than anything else as he floats in dreamy contentment that’s every bit as restful as sleep is.

 

Chapter Text

“He’s touching you,” Paul breathes out, “Can you feel it?”

“I…” Aaron stutters and squeezes his eyes shut with a moan, “I’m kinda…distracted…at the moment…”

The three of them are at Aaron’s desk on the main floor of the cabin. Aaron is sitting in his office chair, shirt unbuttoned and chest exposed. His pants and boxers are in a puddle around his feet. Paul is in his lap, completely naked except for a sock on one foot that he hadn’t managed to take off before becoming too distracted by the kissing. Both of his hands are braced against Aaron’s chest as he moves up and down. Daryl is kneeling at Aaron’s right side, gripping the living man’s flesh and blood hand while burying his face against his bicep.

“Daryl,” Paul gasps, reaching out for him, “Try now…it’s ok…”

Daryl studies his hand for a few seconds, trying to overcome his hesitation. Ain’t gonna hurt him if we’re careful, Daryl thinks, besides it probably ain’t gonna work anyhow. Slowly, carefully, he links their fingers together and closes his eyes…

“Oh god,” Daryl shouts as sensations flood over him, each one hitting him too fast to register or differentiate. Unlike the first time this when happened by accident Daryl has been preparing himself mentally for this for days, and that preparation meant fuck all when it came down to it. Blood moving through his veins, sweat trickling down his (Paul’s) back, Aaron’s hot skin between his thighs and rubbing against his dick and fucking inside him (Paul) and Daryl can feel everything, not just ghosts of sensation or secondhand. He’d fucking forgotten how intense it had been, how had he thought that he’d be able to take it now? On top of everything the only other time this happened the two men had still been using rubbers now even that extra barrier is gone. Daryl’s making noises with Paul’s throat and everything is hot and slick and too much—

Daryl?” Aaron gasps in a hopeful voice. His eyes fly open and Aaron is there, staring up at him, searching his face and Daryl watches as understanding and recognition floods over his face. Aaron grins, grins his happy goofy love-struck grin and it’s for him. “It’s you,” he says, “I…”

“Aaron,” Daryl whimpers, clinging to him. Everything he’s ever wanted to say to the other man flies from his head, they hadn’t really discussed what would happen if this worked, if they should stop fucking and talk but he can’t think.

Then Aaron’s arm is sliding around him, holding him close. The other man’s remaining hand strokes Daryl’s (Paul’s) back, gentle and soothing. It’s ok,” Aaron whispers against his hair. They’re still for a moment, clutching each other. “Let me know if it’s too much,” Aaron whispers, before he starts gently rocking his hips.

Daryl tries to say something, anything, but all he can get out is Aaron’s name. Of course it’s too much, it’s way too much, how do the two living men do this all the damned time without dying, how can the living deal with their own bodies at all, much less the body of someone else intertwined with their own, each breath and heartbeat reverberating between the two of them.

Daryl is overcome within a minute of that gentle rocking. His muscles tighten, skin flushes with heat and scalp-tingling overstimulation, and when he (they) come it not just in his (Paul’s) dick but his (Paul’s) entire pelvis. Daryl sways, strength running out of him and he tumbles off of Aaron’s lap onto the floor, feeling the world flicker.

When things come into focus he looks up and sees Paul is still sitting in Aaron’s lap, body completely limp, hands dangling at his sides. The only thing stopping him from tumbling onto the floor next to Daryl is Aaron, what’s left of his arms trembling with effort to hold him up. Paul’s gasping for breath and trying to talk, barely able to get out “Ok…s’ok…”

Then, unbelievably, Paul straightens up and grabs the back of the chair behind Aaron’s head, moving like a drunk man. Presses his forehead against Aaron’s and starts moving against him, the other man letting out an astonished noise and groaning out Paul’s name.

Afterward all three of them are barely able to make it to the bed, Paul stumbling and nearly knocking both him and Aaron over. They stretch out in bed, unable to speak for a very long time. The two living men doze while Daryl just drifts in dreamy contentment.

The past few days have been a whirlwind; they’ve gotten very little actual research done or experiments beyond what they get up to in bed. The only thing they’ve managed to test besides channeling is trying to get Paul to pull Daryl outside of his range. That also failed, Daryl rode with them in the Jeep, Paul staring into his eyes and focusing. As much as the two of them tried to cling on to each other nothing could stop the fog descending, Paul’s eyes the last thing Daryl sees before finding himself standing over his grave. He’s still standing there when Aaron and Paul come back a few minutes later with disappointed faces. They tried it again, and again, and again with the same results before giving it up and returning to the cabin.

“I’m sorry,” Aaron said, “I wish I could give you a hug.”

“Hug me instead,” Paul replied, “Daryl can feel it.”

A few minutes after that simple hug the three of them were in bed, Aaron leaning against the headboard and gloriously long legs slung over Paul’s shoulders. Daryl remembers how Aaron had grinned into Paul’s face and growled out, “Harder.” Remembers how he himself felt when Paul did as requested, surging forward and thrusting into Aaron again and again.

It’s a lot like Aaron and Paul’s first week together—it seems like they do nothing but fuck during those days. Daryl supposes the two of them have a lot of time to make up for, and as for himself he has even longer, even if he’s only feeling things secondhand until today. Paul and Aaron keep gently trying to encourage him to participate more, to make suggestions, to touch them beyond occasionally clasping Aaron’s hand. He’s lacked the courage until today’s failed attempt at Paul channeling him. Maria Rovia might’ve been able to channel spirits left and right while just sitting there but so far all their attempts for Paul to do the same with have been unsuccessful. Aaron was the one who suggested maybe it was because Daryl was holding back out of fear of possibly hurting Paul, and they just needed to think of a way to relax him. Paul was the one who suggested trying it while fucking almost as a joke; but once the suggestion had been made the three of them couldn’t concentrate or think of anything else.

Beside Daryl Aaron stirs. He pushes himself out of bed and staggers toward the bathroom, emerging a few minutes later with towels. On the way to bed he stops to fill up a glass of water from the little spout on the fridge. He gulps the entire thing down, fills it up a second time, and brings everything over to Paul. The other man drinks long and deep while Aaron cleans him off.

“Ok,” Aaron says after climbing back into bed, “We…we need to talk about that.”

Paul makes an amused little noise, “In what way? Like, in a research way, or…?”

“In a ‘we should probably talk about boundaries and rules because we’re basically in a polyamorous relationship’ way,” Aaron says, “And in a research way.”

“Has someone been reading The Ethical Slut instead of boring nineteenth century birth records?” Paul says.

“Yes,” Aaron says, without a trace of shame.

“My god you are such a dork,” Paul says, “How can you make threesomes nerdy?”

“What’s…what’s The Ethical Slut?” Daryl rasps out.

“Daryl is having trouble coming back online,” Paul informs Aaron, “We broke him. Again. Daryl, it’s a book on polyamory.”

“Fuck is that?” Daryl says. He thinks he should be able to figure it out but he’s still floating on his little cloud of bliss and pleasure. What they’re saying isn’t really sinking in and he’s having trouble forming coherent thoughts.

“Being in a romantic relationship with more than one person at the same time,” Paul says, amused.

“Oh,” Daryl says, coming down a little from his post coital high, “Is that…we’re…are we?”

“Communication, pal,” Aaron says, poking Paul’s calf with his toes, “We need to talk about it.”

Paul sighs, “Normal rules don’t really apply when the guy we’re dating is a ghost only one of us can see.”

The guy we’re dating, Daryl thinks, fully down off his cloud. Daryl has been avoiding thinking of it this way. Until today he’s telling himself the most he’s done is watch. Watching is something, Paul told him that first time. And in their case watching is a lot.

Aaron is shaking his head, “Some of them do. Being honest with each other and our feelings. Communicating. Letting the other two know if there are any concerns. What to do if one of us feels jealous.”

“Just so you know,” Paul says, “Daryl is looking at you the exact same way I am.”

Aaron sighs, “Ok, I’ll start. Honesty: I love both of you. Which is…since Eric died I’ve been grappling with the idea of being in love with more than one person, if it’s possible, or if I love one of them more or if it diminishes how I feel about everyone. So I’ve kinda had time to work it out and embraced the contradiction. I don’t want either one of you to feel like…second place.”

“Paul’d better be first place,” Daryl says, “He’s alive.

“Well that’s just luck more than anything,” Paul says, “And people can’t help who they love,” then, “Daryl uh…he thinks because I’m alive I’m an automatic winner.”

Aaron makes an exasperated noise, “This shouldn’t be a contest. That’s why we need to talk about it,” he gives Paul a significant look, “Honestly.”

Paul stares at Aaron for a long time, then turns to study Daryl. Finally he looks up at the ceiling, breathing hard. “Ok, honesty. Daryl…I…” he swallows, “I love you, you know that right? I know I haven’t said it, but…I do.”

“Oh,” Daryl says, then, “I…uh, I didn’t know that,” he fidgets, “I love you too.”

Paul’s still not able to look at either one of them but a smile twitches on his lips, “Now I did know that,” then to Aaron, “Daryl’s probably the most honest of the three of us.”

“Ok,” Aaron says, “Now, moving on to concerns—“

“Has he been practicing this?” Paul asks Daryl.

“If so he’s been real sneaky about it,” Daryl says.

Aaron flushes, “Ok, so no, I haven’t practiced this, but I did write it in my notes when you too weren’t paying attention.”

Dork,” Paul and Daryl say at almost the exact same time.

Aaron perseveres, “Concerns. Paul, I never want you to feel like…like Daryl and I are just using you to talk to each other. Or…do anything else together. We really should’ve talked it out today before…” He’s red down to the tips of his ears.

“I know you wouldn’t,” Paul whispers.

“Your turn, pal,” Aaron says, “Any concerns, thoughts, feelings?”

Paul is quiet, giving Aaron a significant look his own, and a sidelong glance at Daryl, “Just the one.”

Aaron looks at the space Daryl would be, even if he can’t see him. He’s been good about that, paying attention to where Paul is looking, and when he talks to Daryl tries to speak directly to him, even if the reply comes via Paul.

“Don’t hold back on account of me,” Daryl grumbles, “I know this is something you two’ve talked ‘bout when I’m not here.”

They hadn’t asked but Daryl’s been giving them a few hours to themselves. No matter what Aaron’s saying now about polyamory the two of them are alive, and they’re married. Whatever he is to them doesn’t come before those two facts, and they need some time alone to talk without him lurking. So he’ll take a few hours while the two men eat lunch or dinner and make a circuit of the valley, follow his animals for a bit, enjoy being outdoors. To his surprise he finds he finds it more interesting than he has in years—when Aaron and Paul were here before he hated to be away from them for any length of time, for fear of missing something. Now he knows that they’ll wait for him.

Paul turns to stare at Daryl and says, “There has to be a way for you to leave this place. We won’t be here forever.”

“As long as y’all come back,” Daryl mutters, “I don’t mind waiting—“

“What if we’d died in the crash?” Paul insists.

“Then I wouldn’t care where I was,” Daryl replies, “Everywhere’d be shit.”

“We’re going to die someday,” Paul says, “Hopefully it won’t be for a long time, but…I’m afraid of leaving you behind.”

And Daryl can’t think of a way to respond to that. He thinks back to the accident against his will, Paul asking him if he could see the next world. If Daryl wanted to go exploring it with him. Remembers turning his head and seeing—

Daryl pushes the thought away. It’s enough to know that there is a next world, and he thinks Aaron and Paul will get to go there like he thinks Eric did.  Daryl is pretty sure that the place he is set to go has a lot more sulphur and pitchforks. “Ain’t nothing we can do about it now,” Daryl says.

Paul looks like he’s going to press, but instead he exchanges another look with Aaron and says, “We can talk about that later. What about you, Daryl? Anything you want to share with the class?”

“Same concern as before,” Daryl mutters, “I ain’t…I don’t want to hurt ya.”

“Believe me you didn’t,” Paul says with feeling, then repeats what Daryl said for Aaron’s benefit.

“You looked like you might faint again,” Daryl says.

“I felt like I might faint again,” Paul says, “It was…” he frowns and his eyes flick between Aaron and Daryl, “I can’t…it’s hard to explain but it was fucking intense. Like, I felt everything and could feel you feeling everything, and…” he snorts out a laugh, “Pal, we’ve never really done the bondage thing, but did you ever with anyone else?”

Aaron looks flustered, “Um. A few times, yeah. Never did much for me.”

“Same,” Paul says, “Normally. But there was this guy I dated for a bit who loved it. I let him tie me up a few times for the hell of it, didn’t get the appeal, but…” he chews on his lips, “But I think I get it now. When I was channeling Daryl it was like being tied up and didn’t have a say in what we were doing, but in a good way. I knew I could break free if I wanted to, and I trusted him. And you, obviously.”

“A guy tied you up?” Daryl says. His brain is stuck on that detail, and he can’t decide how it makes him feel. He imagines Paul with his hands bound while a strange man fucked him and decides he doesn’t like the image. Paul might trust some random guy enough to let him do that but Daryl sure as hell doesn’t. He imagines Aaron doing it next; then doing it himself.

Then he imagines Aaron or Paul tying him up, and he feels a flicker of something. After that he thinks he understands what Paul’s talking about.

“Um,” Aaron is saying, “Ok. Well, it’s good that we’ve talked. We need to communicate, if anyone has any reservations we need to not hold it in.”

“Don’t overthink it, pal,” Paul says, then squeezes Aaron’s hand, “I mean, you’re right, we need to talk to each other. But I don’t think you need to worry.”

The two living men exchange a few more sleepy words before drifting off again. Daryl watches the two of them sleep and feels nothing but a bone deep contentment. Paul and Aaron will leave him one day, whether it’s when they move on to the next world or grow tired of this strange “polyamorous relationship” but Daryl doesn’t care. He thinks these past few weeks spent with the two of them are better than any afterlife he could dream up and far more than he deserves. He’ll take what he can get and not spend too much time worrying about the end.

Chapter Text

It takes them almost a month to figure out how Daryl can talk to Aaron without Paul’s assistance. They might’ve figured it out sooner if they weren’t distracted by countless other experiments. Not all of them pleasant.

Unpleasant experiment number one was working out how Paul can banish ghosts from his presence. Focus his mental energy, the same energy he used to unwittingly pin Daryl into place, and instead of working on being present he works on being away. The first time it worked it scares the hell out of all three of them; Paul had been aiming to just push Daryl out of the kitchen and ends up knocking him clear back to his grave.

“I thought I’d somehow…switched you off, or banished you…” Paul says when Daryl drifts back from his grave, hands clenching and unclenching.

“Well,” Daryl says, struggling to keep his voice even, “I didn’t even flicker, so don’t worry none. But I reckon it’ll send a message loud and clear to any ghost that bothers you if you can get it under control.”

“What’s he saying?” Aaron asks, flittering behind Paul’s shoulder, concern etched on his face while Paul explains. “What do you mean, it will send a message?” he asks in Daryl’s general direction.

Daryl hesitates, wishing like hell he didn’t have to communicate via Paul, “Look, it wasn’t the worst thing that’s happened to me, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant.”

Paul scowls, “Not the worst thing that’s happened to you? Well, the bar’s pretty fucking low for that, isn’t it?”

“Like I said,” Daryl counters, “It ain’t pleasant, but I can deal with it if it helps you.”

“I’m not going to do something that hurts you—“

“Aaron, man, back me up,” Daryl says, forgetting somehow that the other man can’t fucking hear him.

Aaron might not hear him but knows him well enough to guess and looks torn. Daryl can see twin worries battling on Aaron’s face. Finally he says, “Paul’s right about being careful. We can focus on other things for a bit, the more control he gets overall the better things will be.”

“Thanks, pal,” Paul replies, giving Aaron a little smile while Daryl scowls at them both. He hates being babied, especially by Paul. Aaron is only getting Daryl’s reactions through a filter and Daryl  doesn’t hold it against him as much. The less you know about a situation the more cautious you should be, Daryl knows that.

“Look,” Daryl grits out, “I’m dead. Hurting me don’t matter as much.”

“Yeah, it does,” Paul says. Daryl has to look away from the expression in his eyes; there are times where being loved back is incapacitating.

****************************************************

Paul gets a taste of his own medicine during yet another unpleasant experiment.

They’re trying to work out how Paul can channel Daryl outside of bed. Let him slip in, maybe talk to Aaron this way. It takes a long time for them to figure it out; Daryl’s not sure why it’s so easy while fucking but impossible any other time. Maybe because they’re all three overwhelmed by emotions that make overthinking about what they’re doing impossible. When their defenses are down and Daryl’s connection to Paul is particularly strong. Less opportunity for Daryl to actually dwell on what a violation this is, even if done with Paul’s consent and blessing. Less opportunity for Daryl to worry he’s somehow hurting Paul.

Try as he might in the beginning Daryl can’t stay put when they climax, although eventually he’s able to keep from flickering each time he’s knocked clear out of Paul’s body.

“We need to just. Y’know. Stop,” Aaron says before their first successful experimentation, “You know. Get you there, then take a cold shower. Maybe Daryl can stay put if he’s not…not so overwhelmed.”

Paul gives him a playful poke, “Well, that one is all on you, pal.”

It works, for a given value of “work”. Aaron stops as soon as he realizes Daryl has made his way inside, despite the other man’s automatic protests. In the moment the experiment just doesn’t seem as important as getting off, and by the way Aaron shivers he’s thinking the same. Still, Aaron’s able to get control of himself, disentangle from Daryl and Paul then walk away, heading stiffly downstairs to the bathroom. Daryl hasn’t had blue balls in almost four decades and it’s not something he missed. Like having a headache in his nuts. At first it’s the only sensation he’s aware of, looming in his thoughts and blotting out everything else. “Fuck it,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut and mechanically grabbing his (Paul’s) dick and finishing them off. He feels himself flicker, but a frustrated jerk session is a far cry from fucking or being fucked by Aaron and when he’s done he’s still…

He’s still inside Paul.

Daryl takes in a deep breath, then another, focusing on the sensation of air filling up Paul’s lungs. Focuses on the blood pounding in Paul’s veins as it gradually slows down. Minutes pass where he does nothing else.

Finally he hears Aaron’s voice at the foot of the steps, “Paul? Daryl?”

“Yeah,” Daryl rasps out, forcing himself to move. To sit up in bed and swing Paul’s legs over the side. He has to stop again when his bare feet touch the floor, a new sensation. He swallows, staring at Paul’s feet.

He’s…he’s not sure he likes this.

“Paul?” Aaron says, and Daryl raises his head to see the other man is standing in front of him. He’s wearing a robe and staring cautiously at the figure before him, an odd expression on his face. Daryl sees the bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallows before saying, “Oh. Hi, Daryl.”

“Hi,” Daryl says, at a loss for anything else to say. He looks down at Paul’s body, realizing that there’s come drying on his stomach. It’s itchy and unpleasant. He becomes distracted staring down, seeing Paul’s soft dick resting gently against his thigh.

Aaron clears his throat, snapping Daryl back to the present. The other man has the strangest look on his face as he studies Daryl, one corner of his mouth turned down. He opens his mouth to say something and nothing comes out. Daryl is equally speechless. Finally Paul’s legs work enough to get to their feet. He has to pause, swaying slightly at the forgotten sensation of blood rushing from his head.

“Here,” Aaron says, laying a steadying hand on Paul’s arm. Daryl stares at it as Aaron carefully helps him down the stairs and to the bathroom. Both men are quiet as they clean off Paul’s body; all the words Daryl wants to say to Aaron stuck in his throat.

“I really don’t like this,” Aaron blurts out when they’re done and Daryl is tucked in his own robe, “I…sorry, I don’t mean…I just…seeing you in his face is…”

“Nah,” Daryl croaks out, “I don’t like this much neither.”

“Does Paul…I mean, can you talk to him, like this?”

Daryl hesitates then shakes Paul’s head, “No. I c’n…I c’n sorta feel him?”

“Does he like this?” Aaron asks.

“I can’t tell,” Daryl says, “I…he’s pissy about somethin’ though. I think this conversation.”

“So he can hear what we say to each other, then,” Aaron says, mouth twisting a little. Daryl’s able to read the living man’s frustration, can tell that Aaron would love to be able to say some things to Daryl alone.

“Yeah,” Daryl answers. He shivers suddenly, he can feel Paul’s growing irritation like a mental toothache.

“Ok,” Aaron says, “So. Successful experiment. Do you…do you want to do anything while you’re…you’re…”

“No,” Daryl says, “Like you said, I think we proved we could do it, it’s enough for me. I’m just gonna…”

He has a moment of panic then when he realizes he has no fucking idea of how to leave Paul’s body. He feels acid burn the back of Paul’s throat, he’d forgotten how fear tasted. For a split second he wonders if he’ll never be able to leave, that he’s somehow trapped the soul of the man he loves in a prison of his own body, that he’s taken over and consigned Paul to a fate worse than death.

Then he’s collapsing to the floor, shivering and flickering in a way that’s disconcerting. He doesn’t realize he’s been knocked out of Paul’s body until he looks up and sees that Aaron hasn’t taken any notice of him trembling there at his feet.

“I wish you two would stop fucking babying me,” Paul mutters.

“Paul,” Aaron says, relief audible in his voice that morphs into concern, “Where’s Daryl?”

“On the floor,” Paul says, irritation robbing him of concern, “He started panicking, thought he might have taken over. But kicking him out was easy, all I had to do was think of it. So I repeat: stop babying me. ”

“You’re one to talk,” Daryl rasps out, “I’m fucking dead, you can’t really hurt me like I could hurt you.”

“You’re not gonna hurt me,” Paul says.

“I agree with Daryl,” Aaron interjects, “I gotta admit, pal…I didn’t like that.”

Paul makes a frustrated noise, “Why isn’t it a problem when we’re fucking?”

While Aaron struggles for an answer Daryl throws his two cents in, “Cuz then it’s like…you asked me to grab the wheel a second, while you’re still in the driver’s seat…the other way it’s like I tied you up and shoved you in the trunk. Aaron and me don’t need to talk to each other that bad.”

“It’s not just that!” Paul protests, “It’s just…you’ve been dead for so long. I just…let me do this for you. Taste a strawberry, have a beer—“

“That shit ain’t important,” Daryl interrupts, “Paul, I don’t care if you ain’t got a problem. I do.”

Daryl hoped that’d be the end of it; they had other experiments that were more important as far as he was concerned. Paul, however, persuades him to do one more test. The following morning the three of them load up in the Jeep and head for the county road that is just beyond Daryl’s range. Right before they reach it Aaron stops the car, pulls over to the side of the road on the off chance someone drives by, then he and Paul join Daryl in the backseat.

Slipping into Paul’s body this time is the easiest it’s ever been. Daryl thinks it might be because he knows he can do it; go along with the rising pull of pleasure that Paul throws out at him. This time Daryl’s able to slip in after a bit of making out and heavy petting.

As soon as it happens Aaron freezes, pulling back a little and studying his face, cheeks flushed and breathing hard. He gives Daryl a little smile, “Hey. You ok?”

“Yeah,” Daryl says, trying to regain control of his own breathing.

“Is Paul?”

“I think so, yeah.”

“Ok,” Aaron says, then climbs back up to the driver’s seat. Daryl closes Paul’s eyes for a few seconds before joining him in the passenger seat. His legs are a little wobbly but piloting Paul’s body is easier this time around.

“Seatbelt,” Aaron says.

“Oh,” Daryl replies, “Right.” He fumbles with the shoulder belt and tries not to get distracted by sensation. Smell being the overwhelming one—can smell the ugly chemical scent of the air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror, the smell of Paul’s sweat underneath that, and beneath that the dark, earthy smell of the forest. He has trouble with coordination, slipping the metal tongue into the seat buckle. “Sorry,” Daryl says after he finally clicks the belt into place, “I ain’t used to these things.”

“No, you wouldn’t be,” Aaron murmurs. Silence stretches out before he twists the key in the ignition and starts to drive.

Daryl barely has a chance to feel hopeful as they approach the boundary of his haunt; things start growing foggy immediately. “Shit! Aaron, I’m—“ is all he gets out before he finds himself standing on his grave.

He starts pacing anxiously, Paul is still outside of range and Daryl can’t feel him. He heads back to the drive so he can wait. He waits. And waits. He’s just starting to panic when he feels the bright rush that is Paul Rovia entering his haunt, and he hurls himself down the dirt road and meets the Jeep, leaping inside. Paul is pale and sweaty while Aaron is stone-faced, staring ahead with his jaw clenched.

“What happened?” Daryl asks.

“Oh,” Paul says, “Hi. Daryl’s here—“

Aaron’s nostrils flair and he slams on the brakes, only seconds away from their drive. He takes in a breath, then another. “We. Are not. Fucking doing that again.” His tone of voice says loud and clear that this is something that is not up for discussion.

“Aaron—“

“He passed out,” Aaron says, speaking directly to Daryl, “Not just passed out, but stopped breathing for a few seconds. I would’ve called 911 but the fucking reception on my phone decided to stop working.”

“We are not fucking doing that again,” Daryl barks out, “Tell ‘im, and I swear to God if you try to lie ‘bout what I said—“

“Don’t bother trying to lie about what Daryl’s saying,” Aaron says, “I don’t need to fucking hear him to know he agrees with me.”

“Ok,” Paul says, voice shaking, “Even if I could argue with both of you I wouldn’t. I…I’d rather not do that again either.”

****************************************************

Aaron is the one to figure out how to talk to Daryl without Paul’s intervention. He doesn’t stumble on the answer in Maria Rovia’s book, or from the research they’re doing, but by thinking it through and talking it out much the same way he used to talk out plot points to Daryl.

The ghost of the idea comes to Aaron one evening while the three of them are sitting outside watching the sun set over Daryl’s valley. Aaron is in the middle, Daryl at his left and Paul on his right. The two living men are sipping mint juleps and not talking much; neither man is drunk but these are far from their first drinks. If Daryl relaxes and lets his mind drift he can feel Paul’s pleasant buzz from the alcohol. Not the same as if he were riding along in Paul’s body but more than enough. It’s nice, just the three of them sitting together. Nice for Daryl to know that both men are aware of his presence even if Aaron can’t see him. At one point Aaron stretches out his hand and take’s Paul’s, thumb running over the other man’s knuckles. Daryl can feel it; the more time they spend together practicing the more connected they seem to get. Or Paul is learning to project things outward deliberately.

At one point when Daryl looks over he sees that Aaron’s left hand is there. After a moment’s hesitation he reaches out and takes it, which makes the living man shiver. Paul glances over, eyebrows raised, “I can’t see it,” he says, “Aaron’s arm, I mean.”

“Maybe because you only see the dead,” Aaron murmurs, eyelids sliding down as Daryl runs a thumb over his knuckles.

“Your arm is dead, pal,” Paul says, quirking his lips, “We’ve got the bones in a box down in the basement.”

“Well, I’m alive,” Aaron says, “Maybe that’s why.” He lets out a sigh and murmurs, “Don’t really care, just glad he does.” Daryl smiles, and raises their linked fingers to his mouth to press a kiss to the back of his hand. Aaron shivers again, a blissful smile unfolding across his face, “That’s nice.”

“Should we take this inside?” Paul asks. He looks amused more than turned on despite his words.

“Nooo,” Aaron says, “It’s not…it’s not always sexual. Just feels…nice. Like a good massage.”

“Good,” Daryl says, smiling a little. He likes making Aaron feel nice. He exchanges a glance with Paul and when he looks back Aaron’s hand is gone again. “Damnit,” Daryl mutters darkly.

Later, when Aaron straps on Darth to help Paul fix dinner he stares at the prosthesis for a long time. Long enough that Paul pokes him and says, “Earth to Aaron. Is Darth whispering evil thoughts to you?”

“Huh?” Aaron says, blinking. The fingers of his bionic hand curl and uncurl. “I was just thinking…Daryl’s still here, right? He hasn’t gone for a walk?”

“I ain’t rude, I’d say goodbye first,” Daryl mutters without rancor. Paul is smiling when he tells Aaron that the ghost is still hovering in the kitchen watching them.

“Oh…I was just wondering,” Aaron’s brow furrows the robot fingers curl and uncurl again, “why you can flick with the lights or screw up the internet connection or lock Paul out of his car, and why you can move some things and not others; like the planchette or the ping-pong ball but you can’t type on my computer.”

Daryl waits a minute, trying to think up an answer that isn’t I don’t know. “I told ya,” Daryl finally says, “I ain’t moving nothing, you’re the one moving the planchette, I’m just guiding it along. As for the other shit…” he fidgets, “Dunno. Simpler, I guess. It’s all invisible shit in the air, and I dunno…it wants to do this shit, wants to fuck up. Everything I do is just…helping shit along.”

That thoughtful look on Aaron’s face deepens as Paul faithfully reports Daryl’s words. “Could you…could you do the same thing with Darth? Move his fingers, I mean.”

“I…I dunno. Maybe?” Daryl fidgets, “We could test it out, I guess. Don’t want to break your fancy hand, though, ‘sides I don’t see what the point’d be…”

“I can get a new one,” Aaron says, “Or send Darth in to be fixed. Even if insurance doesn’t cover it I can pay for it out of pocket.”

“Fuck, how much this thing cost?”

“About as much as the Jeep,” Aaron replies, waving tens of thousands of dollars off with his flesh and blood hand, “And the point would be helping us communicate. I’d pay ten times as much for that.”

And fuck, Daryl can’t think of a response to that. Again he thinks of how disarming being loved back is. Paul answers for him, “That might work, pal. We can try it out later.”

“Later” turns out to be the following day. All other planned experiments are put on hold. Aaron straps on Darth, Daryl sits next to him, and…reaches out. Concentrates. It’s a delicate process for Aaron to set it in motion without controlling it. The artificial hand has pre-programmed grip patterns and has little sensors that respond to the flex and twist of the muscles of what’s left of Aaron’s arm. For example, if the hand is in the “mouse” grip setting the pinky and thumb close together as though to grip the sides of a computer mouse, and when Aaron flexes a certain way the index finger presses down. If he does it another way the index finger springs back up.

An hour goes by with nothing happening. Or, not precisely nothing—Aaron is able to move the index finger up and down but Daryl is unable to influence it. Paul gets bored and frustrated a few minutes into it; unable to sit still and watch while Aaron and Daryl sit side by side saying nothing and focusing all of their willpower on the electronic hand. Finally Aaron sends him off to do some research—tracking down the list of names Daryl had given them, every person he could remember from back in those days who would have at least some inkling of what’d happened to Merle, Boyd, and the rest of the sons. Paul is of the opinion that Lydia is their most likely option to still be alive after more than thirty years, she’d only be in her early fifties. If she was still alive, that is. Paul stays close enough he can hear if Daryl yells out something he needs translating but for the most part it’s just him and Aaron on their own.

It’s…nice. Having some one-on-one time with Aaron. Daryl still tries to give the two living men some time to be alone together, to eat dinner or talk without him lurking. And sometimes Aaron will go off while Daryl and Paul practice certain things, his presence not much use. But Daryl really hasn’t had much opportunity to just be alone with Aaron, not like how they used to. Where they’d spend hours just being together, even if Aaron didn’t know Daryl was really there and taking it on faith. Willing him into existence.

Daryl smiles, and when he does the index finger on the electronic hand moves. Beside him Aaron jumps a little, then says, “Did…Daryl did you do that?”

“I…I dunno,” Daryl says stupidly. He tries it again, and again the finger moves, and again Aaron asks if it’s him. Daryl hollers for Paul to come over.

“Daryl,” Paul says when he’s been caught up, “think up a number, then move the finger that many times. Don’t tell either of us.”

Daryl thinks of the six for no particularly reason, and concentrates again. Tap, goes the finger. Tap. Tap. It becomes astonishingly easy to move that finger; Daryl doesn’t know if it’s because it’s somehow connected to Aaron’s ghostly hand, or if it’s because the prosthesis is so intimately connected with Aaron’s movements that it’s easy to manipulate. After tap number six Daryl relaxes. He doesn’t have to say that it worked, Paul can read the expression on Daryl’s face, and Aaron in turn can read how excited Paul is.

“Great,” Daryl says, trying again to tamp down the well of excitement he feels, “I can tap Aaron’s finger.”

“It’s a start,” Aaron says when Paul repeats this, “Do you know morse code? Just tap out some letters, I can learn what they mean.”

“Don’t sound much easier than just using the board,” Daryl says, “Yer gonna have to learn just by listening to one letter at a time—“

“No,” Paul interrupts, “we’re in the future. Let me get my iPad…”

****************************************************

The app Paul finds is simple: there’s a little box and a single button in the center of the screen. Short taps produce dots, pressing down longer creates a dash. Pausing for an instant starts the next letter. Paul prints out a morse code alphabet for Daryl to refer to and they start practicing.

Daryl studies the alphabet, then taps the screen four times in rapid succession. Pauses. Then taps twice more. The little box above the button translates the dots into letters, and Aaron smiles when he looks at it.

HI

Daryl studies the alphabet again and concentrates. Tap, press, tap, tap. Press, press, press. Tap, tap, tap, press. Tap. Tap, tap, press.

LOVE U

Aaron grins even harder, exchanging a glance with Paul. “This is…promising.”

“Very,” Paul agrees, and winks at Daryl, “If you practice enough this should be a lot faster than that damn Ouija board.”

Daryl has plenty of time to practice, since regardless of experimentation they still haven’t figured out how to get him inside either Paul or Aaron’s dreams. When the two men fall asleep Daryl heads to the kitchen table where the morse alphabet is laid out. He goes through each letter again and again; remembering what Aaron said once about learning how to type. That after awhile it was more muscle memory than conscious thought, he can type his novels blindfolded if necessary. Daryl doesn’t technically have muscles to help him remember how to tap out morse code but he thinks there’s a ghostly equivalent.

Paul is right, it’s miles faster than the Ouija board, and much easier for Aaron to do. All he has to do is put the hand in the mouse grip, carefully place it so the index finger is over the app’s button, and Daryl can tap away.

Some mornings Aaron wakes up before Paul does, and on those mornings he sets up his laptop at his writing desk and the iPad off to one side. Aaron is still figuring out how to type one-handed, reteach all those muscles after twenty years or so of doing things one way.

“I took an actual typing course when I was in high school,” Aaron tells him one morning, as the two men practice together, “On a typewriter. It was all the school had. After the accident I did a little bit of training on a special keyboard, but typing on a normal keyboard with one hand is faster.” He makes a face, “Well, not as slow, at least.”

Daryl concentrates before laboriously tapping out, JUST NEED TO PRACTICE.

Aaron’s face morphs into a warm smile, “Well, having you here to make me work on it helps.” On those mornings with the two of them alone Aaron does typing exercises with his hand covered while Daryl curls at his side tapping the same letters and words out without looking at the morse alphabet.

“You’re doing better than me,” Aaron says one morning, smiling down at the string of words Daryl has tapped out. He finished long before Aaron did, and on the computer screen he can see squiggly red lines under the majority of Aaron’s words.

ONLY HAVE TO TAP 1 FINGER U HAVE 5

“Well, they’re my fingers, I don’t even have to think about it moving them. Take the compliment, Daryl.”

OH SRRY WAS WORRIED U WAS UPSET

“About typing?” Aaron says, smiling flicking, “I was upset at first, wondering how the fuck I’m going to write now. I hate trying to do it longhand, and it was so frustrating when I first started, but…” here Aaron smiles, “If you’d asked me a year ago I would’ve said I’d give my right arm to be able to talk to you. But I just had to give up the left one, so it’s worth it.”

SHUT UP

“Accept the compliment,” Aaron repeats, then turns back to his typing exercises. After a moment of embarrassed squirming Daryl joins him.

****************************************************