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“I thought Tara wanted you to stay back and be a leader,” Evie called out to Jesus in a teasing tone, seeing him load supplies near a horse. He turned to the sound of her voice, a look she knew all too well on his face. Of course, he wasn’t going to listen to Tara. It was similar to telling an excited puppy to sit and stay. Paul needed to be beyond the walls and was robbed of that opportunity in the current state of affairs.

“I already told her my skills are better suited with the others.” There was an undertone of bitterness in his voice, but only for a second.

“Care for one more?” Arms crossed, she hoped he wouldn’t turn her down. Rumors were already making the rounds in the community. Rosita said the herd was strange. But how?

Jesus cracked a slight smile. “Have I ever turned you down before?”

Yes, actually, she thought in amusement, but that was well over six years ago, just before the start of the war and only shortly after she met him. Her cheeks burned at the thought, and a quiet laugh bubbled from her lips. “Well, to be fair…”

He snorted, clearly understanding where her mind was headed. “Touché. Otherwise?”

“No,” she retorted cheekily, grabbing the bag she already packed and heading toward her favorite mare. The horse was sturdy and calm as she placed her bags on its backside.

“Why am I not surprised you packed already?” he called.

She flashed him a smile. “How long until we leave?”

“Within the hour.”

Decked out in armor and his hair neatly tied into a bun, Jesus looked ready for battle. Little did she (or anyone else) realize, this is exactly what they were headed into.

Seven Years Previous

Evie didn’t know where she was going before the world went to shit. Now, without a cell phone and GPS, she really wished she knew how to read a damn map. Brought up in the age of technology, her parents never taught her the previously crucial life skill. Then again, she was sure they never expected the dead to rise and to be separated from their only daughter.

She huffed, blowing a loose strand of light brown hair from her face. It was painstakingly hot –probably mid-July – and she needed to find a steady water supply soon, or she wouldn’t last much longer. This was always easier when she was in a group.

Others along the way who she encountered encouraged her to head south, toward DC. Rumors flew about there being solutions that way, though she’d heard that before. The same thing was said about various other places, and that only left her on her own and suspicious of new people. The young couple she was traveling with were killed last week, the last of their surviving group. A 20-year-old in the apocalypse was an easy target and she knew it.

Focusing on the map a second time, she looked for any kind of marker that would alert her to a general location. Up ahead was some sort of abandoned diner and she figured she’d take shelter from the heat there and hope that she could gather her bearings. If she were lucky, it wouldn’t be completely looted. She was off in the country at this point, maybe others hadn’t discovered it quite yet.

Ahead, she saw one or two dead ones. They stumbled toward her, the stench god awful. She pulled a knife from its compartment in her pants, killing the first one with ease. The second one had vines tangling its body and was a bit more aggressive. It took more force to lay that one out. Evie wasn’t really afraid of them anymore. Sure, there were times when they startled her, and she came across more close calls than she preferred, but the terror diminished over time.

They were just a pain in the ass now.

Humans were more of a threat these days. She put on a brave front, not really sure for who. She wasn’t naïve. Laws weren’t in place anymore; people could do what they wanted. At least last week, she still owned a gun with bullets. Now, that was empty and stowed away in her bag, with hopes she could replace them or obtain a new one.

Her small knife was the only way to protect herself. It meant she slept short hours and in hiding and never let her guard down. It also meant she stayed off main roads usually in case others traveled in numbers. Men would be thrilled to find a younger woman alone.

As she stepped into the diner, she was greeted with a potent smelling dead one. Disgusted, she thrust her knife into its skull, its innards painting her already filthy shirt. “Thanks,” she muttered to it.

Another one came at her, taking her by surprise and cascading her body through double doors, probably where the kitchen once was. Annoyed as it tackled her to the ground, knife bouncing just out of her grasp, she tried to keep focus. What could she use? The dead one snapped at her, rotten teeth covered in some sort of grime.

“Get a dentist,” she growled, seeing a loose metal bar closer than her knife. She forcefully pushed the rotting dead one back, inching toward the bar, barely able to secure it in her fingers. With a determined swing, she took it off her. Standing up, now exhausted and covered in dead one, she slammed it down on its head.

“Didn’t your parents ever tell you not to mess with a girl?” she asked, dropping the metal. She bent over to retrieve her knife, halfway under a broken shelf and paused at the sight. Behind the display was a dusty 24 pack of water and some cans of food. “Well, thanks.” She glanced back at the motionless body. “I guess you were more helpful than I thought.”

It took some effort to move the shelf as quickly but quietly as she could, but the reward was sweet. Most of her water had been gathered from rain and makeshift setups that David, the man of the young couple, had taught her. Bottled water was like landing the jackpot. Grabbing her can opener from inside her pack (something David once made fun of her for, then quickly understood why it was so important one time deep in the woods somewhere in Jersey), she relished in how good canned food really could taste.

While not safe, but at least somewhat protected, Evie let herself relax enough to mourn David and Jess, the couple who she spent the last six months with. They were unexpectedly overrun by walkers near a house, Jess going down and David sacrificing himself, so she could get away. His muffled screams would haunt her for some time. David was a former firefighter and loved to camp, so seeing someone so smart and resourceful taken down like it was nothing reminded her just how messed up this world really was. No one was safe. Ever.

A creak in the floor put her on alert almost immediately. Covering her new-found jackpot, she grabbed her knife and stood shakily on her feet, waiting for another sound. It would be foolish for her to step out and try to fight something that could be as simple as a hungry animal, or someone who also hoped to get lucky.

Silence followed. She knew it wasn’t the building that made the noise. In fact, she stepped on the same part of the floor, which was what alerted that second dead one to her location only an hour or so previous. Something was here. For just once, could it be a damn rabbit or deer?

What should I do? She considered her options. If it was a person, they knew enough to remain quiet in case someone else was inside. The follow up to that was if they were doing so for the same reason she was, or were they trying not to show their location?

Before she could react further, there were sounds of a scuffle. A gruff sounding man grunted, and glass shattered to the floor, some fragments making their way through underneath. What the hell? Muffled noises continued to filter through to her, instinct telling her she should back up, or better yet run while she still could.

More glass broke and there was a yelp, but a different voice this time.

“You motherfucker,” the gruff voice growled, “Little fuckhead. I’ll show you.”

Another crash and this time, no noise followed. Complete silence replaced the commotion.

“I know you’re back there and I’m not here to hurt you.” Evie’s grip tightened on the knife, heart racing almost immediately. A man’s voice continued on the other side of the door, “I’ve been following you for about a day, but I’ve been following him even longer.”

Shit, what? Who was him? How was she not more careful?

“Don’t beat yourself up.” The voice chuckled breathlessly. “I’m a bit of a ninja. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. I mean you no harm and I know that doesn’t mean much in today’s world, but I hope it still means something.”

Evie didn’t respond.

The voice hummed, then hissed as if he was in pain. “You’re resourceful for being so young. I bet you had someone teach you, but I wonder why you’re alone. I’m going to take a step forward. You’ll see my shadow. Please don’t stab me. I left my supplies about a mile back, and I’m already bleeding.”

Like promised, the man stepped forward, so that his shadow covered the doorway. “I guess I should tell you who I am. My name is Paul Rovia.” He took another step, and this time she saw a beanie, long hair, and kind looking eyes, the only part of his face not covered by a dusty bandana speckled with blood. “But, I’ve also been known by others as Jesus.”

Say what? Evie couldn’t help but want to laugh. Who goes by that? She didn’t want to trust anyone who decidedly went by the name Jesus.

“It wasn’t my choice,” he said as if he read her mind. He removed the bandana, which made him look younger and less threatening. “Friends started it before the world went to hell and it’s stuck. You can call me whatever you want.”

She considered what telling him her name would do. It wasn’t like he could find any records to link her elsewhere. “I’m Eve… well, Evie.”

A quick grin swept his face, making him look younger. It was replaced by another grimace of pain and she noticed a dark stain on his lighter undershirt. “That’s ironic.”

“It is?”

“Jesus and Eve?”

Before she could help it, she laughed too. “Fair enough.”

“Are you hurt?” He stared at the blood covering her shirt. She shook her head, pointing to the dead one on the ground.

“But you are.”

He shrugged, giving her a weak smile. “I’ve had worse. Just some glass from one of the broken plates. I’ll be fine as long as I can get to my first aid kit soon.” She pointed to her own kit that was near her bookbag and then paused. Maybe she shouldn’t offer her limited supplies to this guy. He could be trying to lure her. But then he stepped forward. “You’re pretty good with that knife, I’ve noticed.”

“Thanks, I think.” She crossed her arms, knife still in her hand but no longer ready to attack. “Though, I don’t think I should be thanking someone who has been creeping on me for days.”

“Sorry about that,” he shrugged. “People aren’t always good anymore. I had to make sure you weren’t a threat.” Unconvinced, she stared at him. “Then, I noticed you had a threat.”

She peeked toward the front of the restaurant, not so sure she wanted to see what was there. “Is he… dead?”

“No, but he’ll be out a while. I’m sure that he’ll be in a lot of pain, too. I want to tie him up and get out of here before that happens.”

That seemed fair. She stared at the man and then asked, “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Come to my rescue. You could’ve been killed.”

“It’s my job,” he said easily. He shut his mouth for a second, wiping loose hair out of his face then continued, “I’m a scout for a community about ten miles up the road. I look for people to recruit and bring back home. Sometimes, they don’t always work out. You seem like you’d make a good fit.”

“You have a group?”

“Not just a group. A thriving community with walls, shelter, and food.”

“And what makes you think I fit it?”

He paused again. “As I said, it’s my job to watch people. You’re independent and able to defend yourself. That is important in today’s world. But you also are smart and clearly adaptable. But, you’re young and alone and being in this world alone isn’t safe.” His eyes darted back to where the motionless man lay.

“How do I know this isn’t a trap?” It very well could be. But, she could tell by his hair and beard that he had access to things she hadn’t seen in a while. And most she met on the road often had a musk to them… Jesus seemed clean for the most part. He looked well fed and not exhausted. “Why should I trust you?”

Jesus didn’t hesitate this time, “Because the world is more than you see it as. You have a chance to start over and feel safe. I imagine you haven’t felt safe in a while. I know it seems insane, but they do exist.” He pulled a picture out of his pocket, showing her the large building that was Barrington House. “I can take you there. It’ll take us half of the day to get back. I had a car, but it ran out of gas, so we’re stuck on foot.” He looked out the window. “Looks like a storm is brewing.  We’ll have to find shelter before that happens. It’ll be dark soon.”

Evie should’ve put up more of a fight, but maybe she was tired, or maybe she knew this was going to work out. Maybe because the alternative was scarier. Either way, she trusted what he offered. And so, she agreed to it.

The two of them stepped up front minutes later, gathering as much of her supplies as they could. Much to her surprise, after tying the man up (a plump and dirty looking man with pudgy fingers), he left a can of food and water next to him.

“Why?”

“Because safety and cruelty are two different things.” Jesus gave her a slight smile. “Even prisoners are given food and water.” With a shrug, she tore her eyes away from the dirty man. What would have happened if Jesus hadn’t found her? What was his plan? He might have just wanted to rob her, an easy target. Or, he could’ve had much worse motives. She was glad she would never know.

So, they took off up the road, traveling for nearly three miles and grabbing Jesus’ things. “I have a safe house about another two miles from here.” He glanced up at the sky and frowned. “Hopefully we make it in time.”

She pointed to the wound on his side, still bleeding. “You need to get that patched up.”

“When we get there and we’re safe,” he agreed. “But first, we need to get out of the woods.” It started to rain before they reached the safe house, but not for too long. Inside, Jesus showed her where she could sleep and where important things might be. He completed his tasks with empty cans at the door, so any intruders would make noise.

“You can eat whenever you’d like,” he told her gently, showing her the fireplace. She asked if that would draw attention and he said the trees were so high that they were safe. Somehow, she believed him.

“I’ll eat in a little bit.” She motioned to his side and then grabbed her first aid kit. “Let me help you get cleaned up.”

Evie wanted to do something to help the man who saved her from a possible disastrous night. He didn’t argue and slid off his trench coat (who wore a trench coat in July, she didn’t know). Jesus then pulled the side of it up, revealing an angry looking three-inch cut. It had mostly clotted at that point but still looked pretty gruesome.

“This will probably sting,” she admitted, grabbing a few alcohol swabs and some antibiotic ointment. “I can give you stitches too, but I can’t promise that they won’t leave a scar.”

He chuckled, “I don’t think that matters much anymore.” Up close, Jesus was quite a good-looking guy. He was probably a few years older than her, late twenties maybe with bright blue eyes. Regardless, he seemed kind enough and he was right: they all needed that right now.

A hiss escaped his mouth at the touch of the alcohol. “Stupid plate,” he grumbled.

“You’ll have to tell me sometime how you took down a guy twice your size,” she teased, starting minutes later to sew stitches into the wound. She was really bad at this, but then again, she only did it once before on Jess when David wasn’t around. It was better than him walking around with an open wound, though.

Jesus’s eyes twinkled. “I told you, ninja skills.”

Then sometime later, Jesus said he’d take watch first. Watching him sip on the bottled water she found, she drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Present Day

Hidden a safe distance from a herd, Aaron, Paul, and Evie watched them circle each other. Daryl appeared beside them, holding his crossbow as Dog ran by. "It's about 130, 140 of them." Evie glanced back toward the dead ones. Between the four of them, that wasn't an unmanageable number, but enough that it wasn't worth the risk. Priority was to find Eugene.

Jesus's eyes remained glued to the walkers. "You ever see them do this before?"

"No." Aaron seemed equally perplexed by it. Evie shook her head, too. "Never."

"Do you think something is keeping them in that area?" Evie asked. "I don't see anything they can feed on." She handed the binoculars back to Paul and looked to Daryl. For some reason, it seemed like he should know.

"Rosita's backtrail goes right through ‘em. We should get the horses, circle around; then we'll pick it up on foot."

Aaron didn't seem convinced. "What about them?"

"What about ‘em?"

Jesus confirmed, "They're just milling around. That's not normal." Evie didn't like how spooked all three men seemed. Daryl was as tough as they came, so the thought that if it concerned him made her wonder what changed with the dead ones.

"Naw, naw it ain't. We should get going. There is a storm coming."

The breeze picked up as if to make a point. Aaron and Daryl began to walk, but Paul hung back. Evie watched his uncomfortable stare and then touched his arm. "What is it?"

He shook his head. "I don't know. I have a bad feeling about all of this."

"You having a bad feeling makes me worry," she responded.

"Let's go."

Sometime later, the group made it to a clearing. Daryl was up ahead with Dog, while the three of them hung back. "Daryl says he's been trading with the Hilltop again," Aaron stated. This information was not news to her, but perhaps to Aaron. She was surprised that Jesus didn't bring this up, but he simply shrugged.

"He used to come like clockwork a couple times a year. Never stayed, though. The gaps between the trips got longer and longer. Prefers it out here, I suppose."

"Sounds like someone else I know," Aaron quipped, and Evie stifled a laugh.

Paul chuckled, not able to disagree. "We used to be explorers," he defended. "The whole world was ours to rediscover."

Evie nodded, though didn't add to the conversation. She knew how much Paul hated to be a leader. He was good at it, but it wasn't something to which he excelled. Other leaders, like Michonne, Rick, and even Ezekiel, traveled outside the walls more often than Jesus ever did. It was like being the leader of Hilltop put some chains on your body.

"I miss it too," Evie finally agreed. "Who knows what else we could find out there?"

"Well, we were out looking for people. Offering them a chance to be a part of something bigger. Because of you, we were able to find each other." Aaron's comments made both Jesus and Evie smile, but Aaron had more to say. "Maybe showing those people a way forward is the next step in that."

It agitated Jesus to hear it. "I just don't think that I'm…"

"I do," Aaron cut in. "I think you'd be a damn good leader if you'd just stop fighting it."

Evie wondered if this would cause a fight. She and Paul discussed his hatred for leading Hilltop many a time. He didn't mind leading when others were away, but the need to be out there and in the action gravitated his curiosity far too much. "Maybe there is a compromise," she proposed.

"You think that's what I'm doing?"

Aaron motioned to Daryl. "He's spent a long-time keeping people away but finding them… it's kind of his thing. Maybe one day he'll stop fighting it too."

Evie played the common ground a second time. "There are still people out there; those who might need our help. I wasn't with a group when Paul found me. I was off on my own. What would have happened if he didn't run into me? Sure, others could go out there instead of him." She took a deep breath. "But to waste his talents and stick him in a desk job is not doing the best for Hilltop."

"I don't disagree." Aaron paused. "I enjoy being a part of the council at Alexandria. I feel as if I have an advantage because I have been out there and inside. Perhaps if there was something similar to that for Paul, he could still share the leadership and do what he does best outside the walls."

"Like he was doing before," she suggested.

"Exactly."

"Who else is going to train your sorry ass," Jesus teased, the tension easing quite a bit.

"Give me two months and watch the student become the teacher." The two of them stopped, eye to eye. A blush swept Aaron's cheeks, and Jesus's eyes danced playfully at his on and off again partner. With a swift motion, he grabbed Aaron's ass and then turned on his heel to greet Daryl, who returned, missing the entire conversation.

Evie giggled at the exchange and awaited the information to come. "The herd is coming for us. The wind is carrying the sound. C'mon, let's put some ground between us and them." Daryl threw the alarm and began to walk, and Aaron followed. She hung back with Jesus, again confused by the new information.

"I don't like this. Something feels off."

"I agree," she admitted.

There was a beat, as they walked in silence. "He isn't wrong, you know."

"Who, Aaron?" She nodded. His hands flew into the air, exasperation in his voice. "Not you too."

"Yeah. You do make an incredible leader." He gave an exaggerated sigh. "I'm not saying you should sit in Maggie's office and pretend that is who you are. Hell, God knows I'd be dead if that were the case. But you could try and make Tara's life a little less stressful. Maybe if you find common ground, she'll permit you to let down your hair and …"

"Evie," he warned with a laugh.

"I know, I know." She fell in step with him, nudging his side. "I like you two together. You're good for each other."

"He's a good man," Jesus agreed. "I just wish it wasn't so difficult to try to have something with someone these days."

"Isn't love worth fighting for?"

Jesus sighed. "Of course, it is. But so is making sure the communities don't fall apart in the process."

“There has to come a time when you put you first, Paul.” She carefully eyed him, and he averted her gaze. He knew what she was talking about because anyone who truly knew Paul understood he saw others as more important than his own needs. “Did you ever stop to think you may be stronger if you have someone else to lean on?”

“I have plenty of people to lean on.”

She huffed, trying to hold back what she wanted to say. “I can barely get you to talk to me most days, Paul Rovia.”

“I can use your full name too, Eve Dalton.”

“Don’t change the subject,” she hissed. “I mean it. I know you like climbing over walls for fun, but maybe you should let down the ones inside your head. You might find you’re more at ease if you do.”

---

Flashback: Years Previous

"I have to admit, I'm excited to be doing this," Evie quipped, grinning ear to ear as Paul slung his tote bag over his shoulder, turning on one foot to make sure their car remained properly hidden from view. "I haven't been outside the walls of Hilltop since you brought me in and that was almost a year ago!"

He shot her a glance. Looking back now, he probably assumed she was being naïve but didn't have the heart to tell her. But, at the same time, he knew she valued feeling valued. Sitting in a kitchen, baking and cooking like some of the other women was not her idea of doing her part. Evie was a go-getter, and now officially a trained one. "I know. You're lucky Maggie trusts me. She didn't want you out here. Not when there are so many Saviors that could pop up any given moment."

"But we're heading the opposite direction of which they live."

"That doesn't mean anything," he argued. "Keep an eye out."

Evie nodded firmly, noticing how serious her friend got outside. She knew the risks and understood why, but she missed that boyish smile that often spread on his face. After a while, she got tired of walking in silence. "What did you do before the apocalypse?"

"What?" he asked, glancing up from a map he was trying to study. "Me?"

"Yeah," she replied. "I've meant to ask. Unless you were actually roleplaying as Jesus, that is."

His smile danced briefly. "No. Definitely not. I don't know? I worked a few odd jobs. When it first happened, I was about your age and had flunked out of a college just a few months previous. I was living with a boyfriend at the time, not anything serious but so that we could split the bills. He got me a job bartending at a gay night club… but it wasn't what I wanted to do. But again, I didn't know what I wanted to do. It was also on the same property as the martial arts studio where I trained."

"You were a bartender?"

"Not a very good one," he laughed.

Evie nudged him, "I bet with those pretty eyes you still got a lot of tips."

He gave her a shy smile this time. "Maybe. That's probably why Ben broke up with me not too long before the outbreak. I was about to be homeless. I guess he realized I wasn't in it for the long haul, but it still sucked. We spent almost two years together, just floating." He shrugged. "I was used to that. I told you I grew up in group homes, yeah?"

"Yes," she murmured, knowing it never went beyond that. "How young were you when you entered foster care?"

Jesus shrugged his shoulders as they dipped left into deeper growth of woods. "Young. I don't remember anything other than group homes." He sighed. "I was never one to fit in. Never quite weird enough to fit in with the outsiders, not cool enough to be in the bad boys club, and of course, there was the gay thing. I knew from a young age. I kept it quiet, though because I saw what one of the bigger guys did to another one of the home residents for admitting it. He was in the hospital a week."

"That's awful."

"Don't get me wrong," he continued. "I've had my share of beatings and wrongdoings because of my sexuality. I think at some point, it's unavoidable." He pointed up ahead, and she followed. "Even after the world went to hell. Very early on, one of our residents overheard me talking to one of the women in the kitchen. I said it casually because I liked her and at the time, Alex and I were sneaking around. Little did I know that her woman’s husband overheard and decided he would beat it out of me."

"What?" Evie felt sick to her stomach. "You're kidding me. Please tell me they're not still here."

Jesus shook his head. "No. He went out on a run with Kal in the early days. It turns out, he was more than just homophobic, but racist too. Tried to set Kal up to be killed. Thankfully, it didn't happen. It backfired. Even so, it tore Kal up. It's why he only does sentry duty now."

"Wow." She bit down on her lip, then added, "I'm sorry it happened anyway."

Jesus gave her a quick smile. "History long past over. Bertie still sneaks me an extra slice of pie every now and again though, makes me think she was trying to make up for it."

"It was Bertie's husband?"

"Yes." They finally made it to the highway but kept in the trees, so they had the coverage. "Should only be about five miles from here. So, tell me about your childhood, Evie. You mentioned you were an only child. The same scope as me, but completely different upbringing, I'm sure."

"Oh, I guess. My parents both worked for the airlines when this all started. To this day, I don't know where my father ended up. He was on a flight to somewhere on the west coast. My mom was at the airport, supposed to be on her way home later that day." She took a deep breath. "The airport was taken in by the military. We couldn't get anywhere near it, but I tried. Zac finally told me we would have to go."

"That had to be hard."

"It was awful, but Zac knew even at our age that the military was going to usher as many into these so-called safe zones. Without a handle on what it was, how could they call it safe? We left New Jersey and headed south. We even met up with a group at one point, but most of them argued over who was the boss. We left before it exploded." She squatted down, looking at a piece of fabric. "Wonder if this just got stuck here, or someone came through."

"Hard to say," Jesus commented.

"Anyway, Zac was the person there for me for most of my teen years. We grew up down the street from each other, so I spent a lot of time with his large family." She stole a glance at the highway, littered with looted cars. "It was devastating for him to come home and see it was too late. For me, too. I had nightmares for weeks. But again, he knew we needed to go. Zac’s mentality is what probably kept us safe as long as it did."

Jesus paused for a moment, stopping to take a sip of his water. "You never did tell me what happened to him."

"It was how I met Jess and David," she whispered, closing her eyes. "We were trapped on top of a school bus, trying to figure out which way to go. He wanted to get a better view from a higher vantage point. At the time, it seemed safer than clearing an unfamiliar building. The dead ones swarmed out of nowhere and were rocking the thing. I noticed David in the distance. He had a gun, and it must've had a silencer. He tried his best to get us a path, but there were too many. Zac lost his balance and fell off. I guess in that way, I got my path." Her throat tightened, and she had to stop, thinking about his antagonized screams. "Once again, he saved me. David and Jess got me to safety, and from there, we joined a group until just about you found me. How did four years pass during that time? I'm not sure. It felt like it zoomed by."

"I'm so sorry, Evie." He wrapped her into a hug. "I know how hard it is to move on from something like that."

"Yeah." She sniffled. "But I am who I am because of him, and he lives on in me. I was interested in nursing and medicine because he was."

"A vital skill today," he agreed. "I'm glad you're still here. The world is better for you in it."

She laughed, not because she didn't believe him, but because she knew if she said the same to him, he wouldn't agree. Jesus found it hard to trust most people, except for a select few. She knew he trusted her, Maggie, and the ones in Hilltop who were there from the beginning like Kal and Bertie. But it was hard to knock down his walls. She stopped what she was doing and squeezed him hard, hoping that would suffice.

"Paul, look out!"

A walker on the ground, buried beneath the brush lunged at him, and Paul darted with just enough time before the dead one's teeth sunk into his ankle. The ground was uneven, and he took a sharp fall down part of a ravine, landing with a thud against a tree. For someone so balanced and light on his feet, it would almost be humorous to see how ridiculously hard he fell had she not been worried.

She quickly pulled her knife from its pocket and smashed it into the walker's skull, rushing down to join her friend. He was conscious but had various scrapes and bruises forming on his face, not that she could see what was beneath the long-sleeved clothes he wore. A light scratch on his face bleed, dripping red liquid onto his beard.

"Are you okay?" Evie was glad to see he didn't seem too hurt, thankfully.

"I'm not sure what is more bruised, my body or my ego," he grumbled, and she helped him stand. She stopped him from moving, inspecting various parts of his upper body to make sure he didn't do anything that rushed with adrenaline at the moment. "Just sore, Vev. I'm fine, I think."

"Did you hit your head?" She remembered after he met with Rick Grimes and Daryl for the first time, there was a mishap where he hit his head pretty hard. He was out cold for nearly 12 hours. The doctor at Hilltop mentioned for future reference that he needed to be more careful. Multiple concussions could lead to permanent damage. Jesus had scoffed, but she worried. Old world medicine wasn't natural to come by anymore. What if this did happen?

"No, back broke that fall," he murmured, placing one hand there. "Gonna be sore soon, but I'll live."

She sighed, "Well, that never happened in training."

His eyes narrowed, and he pointed a finger. "This stays quiet back at camp, okay?"

Glad he was kidding around, she shrugged playfully. "Dunno. I think others would be glad to know that you're truly not the second coming."

"Funny!" he scoffed.

As the day wore on and it grew hotter, it became clear Paul was in more pain than he let on. She tried time and time again to make him use something from the kit she always carried, but he swore he was fine. He was walking with a slight limp, and a nasty bruise had formed on his lower back, which she could see through his light-colored shirt.

She was worried. What if he hit the tree harder than she realized? What if he was internally bleeding?

"Evie," he whispered as they came up to the location from which they were supposed to gather supplies. "Come on." She bit her lip and followed him. That night, she heard him groan in his sleep while she kept watch, knowing that he was in pain and tolerated it just in case something more serious happened. It made her hate the world they lived in, where something as simple as rationing ibuprofen was necessary because there was always the chance someone else needed it more.

Granted, the next morning, Jesus was right. He was sore, but the bruise already was fading to an ugly looking rainbow of yellows. But, it was in those late-night moments that she wondered, what if it wasn't the case? How could she have helped him if things took a turn for the worse?

---

Evie was in her trailer, which she shared with Enid. On her last run with Jesus, they came across a pile of books, and she took a few for the trip back. Now, with some free time and bad weather outside, she decided she would enjoy a pleasure that survived the end of the world. Outside, the rain rapped on the windows, coming down in sheets practically. It was perfect reading weather.

The door to her trailer, left unlocked, came swinging open. She glanced up to see Jesus standing there, drenched head to toe with his hair tucked under a beanie. He made a face as he shut it behind him, dripping on the rug near the door. With a laugh, she threw a towel at him and rolled her eyes. So much for reading.

"Holy shit," he muttered. "I know I said we needed rain for the crops, but I think we've overdone it."

"I like the rain," she hummed. "It's peaceful."

"I suppose." He plopped down next to her. "Whatcha doing?"

"I was reading before some weirdo came into my room and shook himself like a wet dog on my couch."

He feigned hurt and then kissed her cheek. "What kind of dog am I?"

"What are those dogs you used to see in the shows?" she giggled. "You know, the ones with the super long, perfect hair. That is totally you."

Paul looked like he wanted to protest, but knew she had a point. "I regret asking." He tossed his boots off, pulling his knees up to his chest. "So, if I tell you something, promise to hear me out."

"Debatable," she teased, but his face remained serious. "I promise."

"So, Aaron stopped by the other day with Rosita to drop off some supplies Rick had promised Maggie. I honestly think part of it was to see how she is doing. She has come around quite a bit since the war ended, but not enough that she'll see Rick herself, of course." Evie nodded, this she already knew. "Fine. I'll cut to the chase. What do you think about Aaron?"

"Um… I don't know him all too well. He's always super nice when I visit Alexandria, and Gracie is adorable. Why?"

"Maggie proposed sending a joint community scavenging team out for necessary supplies that in the long run, would benefit both communities. She even suggested involving Kingdom and Oceanside, but both declined. Michonne loves the idea but wasn't sure about who to send. Aaron already volunteered and then suggested me."

"That seems logical. You are the best we have here." She wiggled her eyebrows. "And you're both bachelors, last I checked."

Jesus made a face. "Aaron only lost Eric a few months ago, Vev."

"So, then why did you ask me?" she wondered.

"I was hoping you wouldn't be upset that I was going to head out on a scavenging run without you," he admitted. "I never meant…"

She waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, please. I'm fine. I've also seen the way you've looked at Aaron in the past. It wouldn't hurt either of you to blow off some steam together." He rolled his eyes. "It's the new world, Paul. Get with it. You deserve to be happy. That's all I want to see."

"I'm trying to make sure our communities have enough to eat and survive, and you're trying to get me laid."

"Well, someone has to."

Jesus rolled his eyes but leaned on her shoulder.

Chapter Text

Sometime after that, the duel scavenger missions became a regular thing. Evie sometimes joined, continuously playing matchmaker and being shot down just as often by Paul, who swore despite the obvious that nothing was going on between them. Either Aaron was unaware of her antics, or he too was ignoring them.

Aaron was awesome—funny, sincere, and dedicated to making the world better than it once was. He was altruistic, something many lacked. They were perfect for each other, and neither wanted to admit it. It drove her insane, but she bided her time, hoping that the two of them would realize that time was something they shouldn't waste.

Things were tighter than they used to be. After a terrible accident left Tammy Rose and Earl's son dead, all hell broke loose. Gregory snaked his way into Earl's brain, convincing him to try to murder Maggie.

She didn't know when it all went down, but things spiraled fast. Despite Jesus's disagreement, Maggie ordered Gregory to be hung in front of everyone. Evie felt torn—she was not sure what the answer was. This always split her and Jesus. He tended to see things from a very pure perspective. A perfect example of this? Gregory should be locked up, not killed. He disagreed with killing Negan too.

Evie wasn't so sure. Negan, she could understand his reasoning, but Gregory? He was given chance after chance and did not respect a single person unless it got him further in life, Jesus included. She remembered how he treated Jesus during the early days when Maggie and Sasha both arrived. Jesus was a peacemaker but always firm. He didn't like Gregory, but he wasn't about to put Hilltop at risk. That's where he was wrong. Hilltop was at risk. Gregory was a danger to the community, and it was only a matter of time before he got someone else killed. Would she have done it by public hanging? No, but he would be killed.

Regardless, it caused temporary turmoil in the community. Maggie kept Jesus closer to her as if he could give her answers to things she needed at any given time. Maybe too, because not everyone still understood her, and she recognized they trusted him. A bit selfish on her part, but when you looked at the reasoning, she supposed it made sense. She knew it drove him nuts, but he respected her, so he did as he was told.

However, Rick had a mission to rebuild the bridge that connected the communities and use the Saviors to do it. Maggie suggested their labor in return for food.

Aaron, being a good guy, agreed to help too.

It meant Aaron and Paul saw little of each other. Evie went to the bridge site often; Siddiq was training Enid to be a doctor, and while it was not Evie's primary desire to be one as well, she enjoyed helping out when it was needed. It didn’t hurt to learn a valuable skill such as medicine. Besides, a tied down Jesus was a miserable Jesus, and she did not want to be on the receiving end of that.

It allowed her to get to know Aaron better. He often spoke about Gracie and how much she grew daily. She listened to him babble like Daryl was a great conversationalist when, in reality, Daryl grumbled most answers and could not hold a basic conversation some days if it killed him. Still, she knew he liked Aaron and respected him.

"Gracie learned how to say apple the other day," Aaron said, sitting down in the makeshift eating area. The two of them often shared lunch and exchanged stories. "It is her new favorite word."

"That is pretty cute.”

"It's ironic," he admitted. "I hate apples, especially applesauce."

"Really?" she questioned, but Aaron didn't elude to more. Sensing it may be a sensitive topic, she added, "So what does that put her now? About a dozen words?"

"Yes," he grinned, practically glowing. It made her happy. She knew in the early days after the war, even with Gracie, he struggled. Missing Eric and grieving took time, but it seemed like he held his head at a good place these days. Being her father gave him purpose. "Still hasn't mastered daddy, but we're working out it. My favorite word is but-fly."

"Butterfly?"

"Oh, it's hilarious. We get a lot of them outside our backyard because we have a lot of flowers. All different colors. But, there is something about a tiny toddler screaming but-fly while your elderly neighbors sit a few feet away." His eyes were practically shimmering with pride, and she couldn't wait to tell Paul. Something like this would pull him out of his little Maggie funk for at least a few hours. "My neighbors aren't bad," he added as an afterthought. "I do think they don't quite understand how a single gay man has a baby, though."

"It'll hurt their brain," she teased. "I love it. Let me know if you ever need a babysitter. I'd love to hang out with her."

"Don't you get enough babysitting grumpy Paul these days?" he retorted.

She groaned loudly. "You have no idea. Maggie is running him ragged. I know they respect each other and each other's judgment, but she needs someone else to bounce ideas off. Or, at least someone who will put her in her place from time to time. Paul just casually disagrees and might as well not say a word. She needs someone to give it back to her. Otherwise, it goes over her head."

"He's too nice for his own good," Aaron replied, and she fought a smile. The two of them were peas in a pod. She knew Aaron was similar with Rick and Michonne, though he was more apt to be at least more critical of their leadership when needed. All Paul ever said was that “good people could disagree." On the days she was irritated for any given reason, he would never let her pick a fight with him. It was maddening. “He would make a great leader himself if he just tried.”

“Oh, he’ll kill you for that comment.”

“People respect him,” he reminded her.

"I know. I need to get him out of those walls soon, or I fear he might ninja kick me."

"Now, that sounds serious." He paused, finishing the last of the food on his plate. "He was supposed to start helping me with martial arts, but ever since Gregory he's been so busy. I meant to ask him when we would start."

Evie couldn't help but let her tongue get the best of her, "He does do that kids' martial art class on Friday afternoons…"

"Evie Dalton, that is not funny."

“Why don’t you stop by? I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you did.”

A thoughtful hum escaped Aaron’s lips. “I suppose that could work. I’m not due back to Alexandria for another few days. I could always follow you to Hilltop tomorrow on my day off.”

“Tomorrow is Friday…”

As hard as it was to take Aaron’s narrowed eyes seriously, she managed.

She grinned ear to ear as they got up, and she placed her hand on the small of his back. "Well, maybe you just need a little playground fun to kick your ass in gear." The joke went over his head, and she sighed. Evie suspected that Aaron also was ready to give dating another go but didn't want to push him. Sure, he knew that they were close, but he brought Jesus up a lot. Casual friends didn't do that.

Who knew two people could be so oblivious?

---

That afternoon, tensions ran high. Some Saviors grew frustrated with the heavy lifting and the requests by Rick’s group. By two people, nearly a half dozen walked off the site. Things only worsened when Henry came around with a water jug and portioned servings. While those like Aaron and Daryl took their share and returned to work, one of Saviors named Justin was quick to try his hand at abusing Henry’s servings.

Evie didn’t like him. When others she knew and trusted weren’t around, he would make comments to her and Enid. Unfortunately, he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut on occasions when Rick or one of the others would overhear.

But, that day he didn’t expect Henry to fight back. She admired the kid. He was fierce and strong like his adopted mother, quick-witted like Ezekiel. And how embarrassing to be knocked on your ass by a kid so much smaller than you? His true character showed quickly when he got up and went after Henry.

A brawl soon broke out when Daryl tried to interfere. Daryl threw the first punch, and Justin tossed sand into Daryl’s eyes. It took two people, including Aaron, to restrain Daryl and another to do the same to Justin. Things were not looking good, but he could never have imagined what would happen just two hours later.

Enid and Evie were looking over textbooks Jesus found on his last scavenger mission when she heard the frantic voice of Daryl calling for Siddiq. Confused, Evie and Enid got to their feet just as Daryl flung the tent flap open, practically carrying a moaning Aaron inside. She nearly collapsed when she noticed the shirt on his arm, covered in blood.

Was he bit by a walker? The idea sent her spiraling. He didn’t deserve this.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Where’s Siddiq?” Daryl questioned instead.

“He’s gone. It’s just us,” Enid answered, her face ghostly white.

“It’s just you,” Daryl repeated in disbelief.

Daryl got Aaron onto the cot, as Aaron writhed in pain. Together, Evie and Daryl took the wrapped fabric off Aaron’s arm. It was a gruesome sight; his arm was mutilated by whatever happened. The skin was all but gone from the elbow down, torn muscles and broken bones protruding in various areas. This wasn’t a walker.

Her stomach churned, and she glanced up at Enid, seeing a haunted expression on her face. Evie knew this was beyond her experience and by the look on her friend’s face, probably hers too. Still, they were the only two there, and they couldn’t wait. Aaron would bleed out if he didn’t get help soon. The girls shared a look, and Evie whispered, “I’ll help you in whatever way I can. You have this.”

Daryl stared at them both impatiently. “I have to amputate,” she determined.

She would never forget the whimpered, “What?” that came from Aaron’s mouth.

“There ain’t no other way?” Daryl exclaimed, and all three stared at the frantic medical student.

“The only way to stop the bleeding is to amputate and cauterize the wound.” She picked up the textbook they were previously reading and gathered supplies. Evie stole a look at Aaron, whose wide eyes seemed frantic. Their gazes met briefly, and she wished she could do something for him.

“What?” She tossed something to staunch the bleeding to Daryl, as Aaron weakly protested. “Wait, wait…”

Evie turned to Enid, “What can I do?”

“I need Daryl to hold him down, but you keep talking to him in the meantime. I want to keep him conscious as long as we can.” Evie was sure there was medical reasoning before that, but hearing Aaron moan as Daryl tightened the tourniquet felt like someone was stabbing her in the stomach.

“You got something for the pain?” Daryl demanded.

Enid’s breath came quicker and quicker as she prepared. “It wouldn’t kick in fast enough. We need to do this now.”

The girls took to opposite sides of the cot. “I need you to hold him down for me,” she told Daryl.

Evie looked around for something Aaron could bite on, and her eyes landed on her belt. “You can do it,” Aaron assured her between moans. “Do it.” She ripped her belt off just in time to hand it to Aaron.

“Here, bite down on this,” she said. Aaron gave her a grateful glance, putting the leather between his teeth just as Evie took the sharp blade to his arm. Even with the belt in his mouth, his muffled screams made every hair stand up on her body. Evie leaned down close to him, her arm on his uninjured bicep. Daryl gripped his remaining hand tightly, and the two tried to provide as much comfort as possible.

The sounds of her friend’s flesh torn and cut were enough to force her to focus on anywhere but where the blade was. Otherwise, she couldn’t stomach it. “You’ve got this,” she whispered, focusing just above his eyes because she wasn’t sure if she met his gaze, she could hold in tears.

Some excruciating amount of time later, Enid was cauterizing the wound, and Aaron was drifting between consciousness. “You’re almost there,” she told him, hand still firmly squeezing his right arm. “Hang on, A.”

Daryl trembled as Enid finished, reaching for bandages. “Evie?” she asked. “I need you now.”

“I’m right here,” she told him, and he half nodded-half turned his head, and the two girls worked to make sure the wound was properly wrapped and medicated. “Can you start an IV now? Something to lessen the pain.”

“Yeah, yes,” she murmured. “Grab me an IV bag, and I’ll start a line of fluids, antibiotics, and pain medication.” Now that the worst of the procedure was over, Enid’s breathing returned to normal, and she seemed more at ease. The young woman switched places with Evie on the cot and used a needle to start a medical line in his arm. Aaron didn’t flinch but hazily looked her direction.

Evie grabbed broad-spectrum antibiotics, a bag of fluids (thankfully on hand in case of heat exhaustion), and pain medication that hopefully wasn’t too expired. “I’m going to start with the pain meds,” she said out loud, to who Evie was not quite sure.

Daryl got up once he seemed sure Aaron was in good hands and stormed out of the tent, leaving the girls alone. He seemed furious; she knew whoever he was going after would learn a lesson.

“I wonder what happened,” Evie murmured to Enid, as the girl measured out the proper amount of antibiotics for the next round of IV.

Aaron’s head lolled their direction, “There was a herd…”

Evie sat in the small chair next to his bed, giving him a small, sad smile. “Don’t waste your energy, A.”

“I’m’okay…” he murmured. “Herd came through, spooked one of the guys above me. Log… the log was falling fast, and I grabbed that guy … Brad, maybe out of the way… the log came down.”

Her body involuntarily shuddered. Of course, Aaron played the hero. She wasn’t surprised. Enid came up beside her, looking equally scared but impressed. “The pain medication should kick in any second. It should give you some relief.”

“Thanks, ladies,” he mumbled, eyes drifting shut. “Sorry…”

For what, she wasn’t sure. He seemed to slip unconscious, perhaps from the pain medication or exhaustion, and the girls stepped outside. She could hear arguing further down in the camp and was going to question it when she noticed Enid was crying. Within seconds, her tears became complete sobs, and Evie pulled the young woman into her arms, holding her. “I … I did that.”

“Yeah, you did that,” Evie answered. She knew the girl was finally coming off the adrenaline. “You saved his life.”

“I took his arm,” she protested.

“Enid, you saved his life,” Evie reiterated. “He would’ve died if you hadn’t. Think of it this way, Gracie still has a daddy to come home to because of you. If not…”

This didn’t seem to satisfy her, but the sobs quieted just in time to see Justin come tumbling out of a tent further down, Daryl standing in the opening moments later. He looked pissed. The girls watched as Carol interfered and the two disappeared, leaving a dumbfounded Justin on the floor.

“I’m going to stay with him for a while,” Evie told the shaken woman. “Why don’t you go make a cup of tea and then join me?”

About a half-hour later, Aaron awoke from his brief state of unconsciousness, weak but assuring the girls he was in less pain. Enid composed herself before, so he was met with the warm eyes of two women who cared deeply for him. “Would you like some water?” Evie asked, knowing the ordeal probably left him dehydrated and weak. “We can work on food later.”

“Please,” he whispered. Enid helped Evie get him into a temporary sitting position, careful not to agitate the wound too much.

“Slow sips,” she reminded gently.

With that, he laid back down. “Paul…”

Both Enid and Evie glanced his way at that. “What?”

“Someone should tell Paul…”

Evie raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure there will be messages sent out to Hilltop and the other communities.”

“No,” he argued weakly. “Someone should tell Paul.” The girls shared a look. “Please,” he added.

The dark-haired girl glanced down at her watch. Hilltop was only about an hour’s horse ride away. She could make it there and back before sundown, and this was clearly important to her injured friend.

“Okay, yeah,” Evie said. “I can do that.”

A brief smile grazed his face. “Thanks, Evie. Appreciate it.” She squeezed his hand and stood up, asking if Enid needed anything from the community for Aaron’s care. She was sure once he stabilized more, he would move to the other community temporarily, but until then she wanted to help out in any way possible. Enid made a short list, and Evie took off, leaving just as Daryl returned to Aaron’s bedside, looking considerably less murderous than earlier.

“I’ll be back soon,” she promised Aaron, and he nodded from the cot.

Evie raced her favorite mare to the Hilltop community, seeing Kal up top as she approached. He seemed surprised to see her but still offered a big, doofy grin at her arrival. “What up my Garden of Eve?”

“Let me in,” she yelled up at him. “There’s been an accident. Where’s Jesus?”

The gates opened and she jumped off the horse, handing it to one of the women near the stalls. Ignoring Kal’s comments, she stalked her way to Barrington house in her combat boots, hoping that Paul was inside. Not to her surprise, he was seated in Maggie’s office, surrounded by papers and looking positively bored out of his mind as Maggie talked.

Relief surged her body just seeing him sitting there. Running on autopilot the entire way there, she could finally, at least temporarily, relax. Aaron lost his arm. He could still very well die. The Saviors were becoming more and more volatile as the days went on. Many were willing to compromise, but the few that weren’t put everyone at risk.

Would Rick step up? His people and those in conjunction with him should come first, not people who already did so much damage to their lives. Maybe Aaron being injured would alert everyone to this. Aaron was kind and generous and saw the good in people; something like this shouldn’t happen to him, of all people. It was unfair and cruel to think this possibly could’ve been a purposeful act, not an accident.

“Evie!” Jesus took her out of his thoughts. He probably assumed she would take him away for a second, encourage Maggie into a break. His bright smile fell, and his eyes bulged. “Is that your blood?”

“What?” She glanced down and forgot that Aaron’s blood-covered her lower shirt. It covered it, the light green fabric now some horror holiday scene. She shook her head vigorously as Paul hopped to his feet, the alarm radiating off him. His eyes, green in the current light, searched her body for a wound. “I’m fine, no, it’s not mine. There’s been an accident at the construction site.” She saw Maggie finally look up at that and wait for her to continue. “A herd came through, and a log crushed Aaron’s arm. Enid had to amputate.”

The color drained from Paul’s face, and he closed his eyes. “Is he… is he … okay?”

“Yeah,” she assured him. “So far. He’s still in a lot of pain. The medication isn’t helping as much as we’d hoped.” Maggie’s eyes were dark, but she didn’t speak. Hershel popped up from the nearby play area, gurgling at her. She smiled and then turned her attention back to Paul. “He was asking for you. Wants to see you.”

He seemed equally surprised by that. Various emotions engulfed him—concern, anger, and a weird sense of contentment. Aaron wanted to see him; that at least brought some comfort his way. Before he could give his thoughts, Maggie spoke. “Maybe you could head out tomorrow after we finish this.”

Both Evie and Paul stared at her with dumbfounded expressions. Perhaps she didn’t realize how close the two men were now, but her comment fell on deaf ears. Her comments were cold and out of place for someone she too cared about a lot. “Absolutely not,” he said, already gathering his things. “I’m leaving as soon as I can. The rest of this can wait until I get back. Aaron needs me.”

Her expression softened when Paul looked away. It became clear that Maggie saw what Evie did. She could tell the two shared feelings. “Is there anything I can do to help?” she requested.

“Enid asked for some medical supplies out of the infirmary.” She paused, taking her list out. “She would like to move Aaron here as soon as he’s stable, as it’s the safest and closest place for him to travel, as well.”

“Absolutely,” she agreed. “Take what you need and let me know if you need anything else. Have someone keep me updated and give Aaron my best. Be safe, you two.”

The friends left the office and were down the stairs in minutes. “How bad is it really, Vev?”

Evie let her guard down for the first time all afternoon. Images of blood spurting out of Aaron’s arm, his antagonized screams, and the metallic smell hung in the air. Her discarded belt left on the floor with teeth marks. A reminder of what happened and how close they came to losing him.

“It was awful,” she admitted, glancing at her friend, before wrapping herself into his arms. “I didn’t know if Enid was capable. We worked together, and Daryl helped. I honestly think the team effort was what got us through. I was so scared. I felt incompetent and useless like my stupid hopeful words were little comfort to him.”

“I’m sure he appreciated it,” he responded, following her to the mares waiting for them. “You know he would.”

“I couldn’t do anything to help though,” she reminded. “I followed Enid. She’s a mess, too. We came outside when he fell asleep, and she was sobbing.”

“It is a lot to take in.” They took a quick pace with the horses, determined to get back to the camp by nightfall. Paul had various supplies strapped to the back of his horse, as did Evie with Enid’s medical supplies. A few minutes later, just the sounds of the forest and the hooves of the horses beating the dirt road, Paul spoke up. “I have to confess.”

Exhausted, Evie looked his way. There was an unrecognizable look on her friend’s face. He seemed hesitant and distant. “What?”

“Is it normal to feel like your entire world could potentially come crashing down after something like this?”

“I suppose so. Are you thinking that’s how Aaron feels?”

There was a pause. “I’m sure that will cross his mind eventually, especially as this sinks in.” He took a deep breath as the wind picked up, blowing his hair beyond his shoulders. It gave her a clear view of his face. “But no, that wasn’t what I meant.” Ahead, a few rabbits ran out of their path. “I was thinking about my reaction.”

“How so?”

Jesus laughed. “Damn it, Vev. I think I’ve developed feelings for him. Now what?”

Any other time, she would’ve laughed and gloated, telling him she told him so. She would have made so many comments, talked about silly future scenarios, and generally just made his life hell. But, in the seriousness of the day and the looming exhaustion that surrounded them, she just managed a smile. There would be time for the rest of it later. “I would think Aaron being out of it and asking for you before anyone else is a telling clue that he might feel the same.”

He cleared his throat, then repeated, “So, now what?”

“You go be with him, and you see where it goes. For right now, that’s all that matters.”

Paul took a shuddered, deep breath. “Yeah. Okay.” Paul didn’t get unnerved, at least not often. It was why Maggie valued his opinion greatly and why most sought him out for neutral advice. Except, here and now, he was unraveling. Not as extensively as most would, but this was not the cool and collected man she knew so well.

The rest of their traveling continued in silence. She stole a glance at him every now and again; he seemed lost in his thoughts. By the time they arrived at the outskirts of the camp, his franticness had worn off on her. They tied their horses where several others grazed, protected by various structures and joined Carol, who was talking to Rick.

“Jesus,” she greeted warmly. “It’s nice to see you.”

“You too,” he said, forcing a smile on his tired face. “I wish it was under better circumstances.”

Rick gave a stern nod. “How is he?” Evie asked.

“Not much of a change,” Carol admitted. “Rick just left the tent. We were discussing how to move forward now that the divide has gathered so much attention. I believe he’s still awake if you’d like to see him.”

Jesus hardly let her finish her sentence before he began to take long strides toward the medical tent, Evie struggling to keep up with the man who equaled her in height. Daryl was nearby, smoking a cigarette and nodded at the two as they slowed. Outside the tent, where she could hear Enid speaking lowly, Jesus froze. “Do I tell him?”

“Not yet,” Evie said, after giving it some thought. “Maybe it’ll come naturally in the conversation, but for now, I would just be there.”

Jesus took a deep breath and walked into the tent. Enid’s face brightened at the sight of the long-haired man, coming forward to give him a tight hug. The girls smiled at each other, then a soft voice interjected, “Paul.”

Aaron’s eyes were open, albeit barely, and focused on the ninja-like man. “Hey, Aaron,” he murmured, breaking his hug with the medical student, and coming over to the wooden stool. “How are you doing?”

He shrugged but winced at the action. “Been better.” His voice was thick. “It’s good to see you.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner,” he admitted. “I came as fast as I could.”

“You have a duty to the Hilltop. I understand. How is Maggie?”

“She’s… Maggie,” he said with a laugh. “She sends her well wishes.” He turned briefly to address Enid. “There are supplies I dropped off by Carol. We had most of the things you requested.”

Enid gave a tight smile and left. Evie considered going with her but decided to hang back, at least for now. It would seem that Paul could use emotional support. The two friends were whispering to each other, just loud enough for Evie to make out partial words.

“I’m… glad… safe…” Jesus said. There was a pause. He spoke this next line louder, and she reckoned it was because he wanted her to know, too. “Whatever you need for the next few weeks or months, don’t hesitate to ask. Hilltop is here for you. I’m here for you.”

Aaron was fading; the loss of blood and trauma probably overpowering his system. “Thank you. I’m so glad you’re here.”

Chapter Text

Evie peered up from her novel, watching as Aaron used his right hand to finger at a necklace around his neck, fingers sweeping over the golden metal over and over. Unaware of her gaze, he set and unset his jaw. At first, she thought he might be in pain. Enid warned about phantom limb pain in the coming weeks. It was a terrible but intriguing phenomenon.

How did the body still recognize a limb that no longer exists?

Things went smoothly following the accident at the construction site. Two days after Aaron was injured, Enid believed he was stable enough to be moved to Hilltop. With the help of Jesus (who never left his side, but according to her friend still didn’t admit his feelings for the other man) they took him there, where he spent the last two weeks recovering in Jesus and Evie’s trailers depending on who was around at any given time. At first, it was for basic care as the blood loss made Aaron so weak.

Now, two weeks in, it was more for moral support and company. He was doing well, all things considered. The wound was healing the way that anyone could have hoped and Aaron seemed in decent spirits. She knew that might change as time went on, but for now, she and Paul focused on making sure he knew he was loved and they would help in any way possible.

Upon further assessment, she changed her mind. He didn’t seem to be in pain. Something was bothering him, but she couldn’t finger what. “Is something wrong?”

Aaron too had a book but discarded it sometime before. He froze at the sound of her voice like he forgot he was not alone in the room. Between the bountiful pillows (Jesus’s doing), he seemed small and unlike the man she got to know over the last few months. Finally, he settled on her stare. “I was thinking. Drifting, really.”

He touched the ring again. “Did that belong to Eric?” She motioned to the necklace. “You’ve been toying with it for a while now.”

Slowly, he nodded. “Yeah. We found them on a run way back when. I always wore it on my left hand.” He shifted on the bed, a slight wince apparent, and sighed. “We never married—it wasn’t legal when the world fell. But, it felt right to have it there. I can’t wear it anymore.”

“I only met Eric once, I believe, but he was very kind to me. Offered me a meal when you were out with Daryl and Paul, and I was bringing news over. As if we were old friends.”

“Sounds just like him,” Aaron admitted. “He was great at making anyone, and everyone feel welcome.”

The two shared a smile.

“I guess that’s why I feel guilty,” he added as an afterthought. Evie hid the surprise that threatened to spill onto her face. She and Aaron held plenty of conversations over time, but none of them ever concerned Eric. It was a forbidden topic in her mind, something she shouldn’t bring up unless by Aaron himself. Maybe that was her mistake.

She questioned if everyone avoided bringing up his name and if it hindered Aaron’s grieving in any way. People, herself included, didn’t handle that sort of thing well. She never knew what to say to someone and often avoided the subject in hopes that it never came up again. Was it wrong? Absolutely, but it also eluded to the world they were in now. There was not much time to grieve in the apocalypse. You were expected to move on and focus on the present after some short time.

In the scope of things, that was against the nature of their very being. Grief was a personal thing; unique to an individual without a set schedule. It was unfair to assume everyone could fall in line with the new thought.

She didn’t have a response to his statement that seemed proper. “I think grief is something we all experience in our own way.”

His voice halted. “I’m not grieving anymore.”

“Oh?” she questioned, unsure what that meant. “I don’t follow.”

“I guess in some sick way, no longer having the ring on my finger allows me to move forward truly. I know Eric would want that, but I guess I hurt myself by not seeing that until now.”

She waited for him to continue, setting her book on the nearby table.

He seemed hesitant to say what came next, but admitted, “I’ve developed feelings for Jesus. I realized it back at the tent but thought maybe with all the drugs and the exhaustion, I was reaching. But, while you and Tara were out the other day looking for supplies and we spent the day in here, I realized I enjoy his company.”

Evie wanted to grin at the comments but knew if she started telling him that Paul felt the same, it would ruin the actual moment they could have together. Paul was in a meeting with Maggie at Barrington and should return to his trailer within the hour. She knew it would be a good time for her to make herself scarce, perhaps spend time with Enid or harass Kal.

Instead, she leaned forward, placing her hands on her knees. “If that is the way you feel, tell him. Life is too short not to tell someone how you feel.”

---

Jesus

Evie was asleep in her trailer when he arrived, curled up on a small loveseat, a book he’d given her a week previous on her left. He was thrilled to finally be out of another long meeting with Maggie and others within the Hilltop. The disaster at the construction site had everyone on edge and revamped Maggie’s anger with the Saviors. She wanted nothing to do with them and blamed them for what happened to Aaron.

Aaron, awake on the bed, gave him a bright smile upon his entrance.

“Hey, Paul.” He ignored the warmth Aaron gave him by just smiling. It wasn’t the time; he should control his feelings until things smoothed over and then reaccess. That was what he told himself over the last two weeks when other than his immediate arrival, things seemed to simmer but never boil as he expected between them.

“Aaron,” he too greeted. “How are you feeling?”

“Restless,” he admitted. “Now that the stump is healing, it itches more than it hurts. It might be what finally drives me insane in this recovery.”

“What did Enid say about it?” he questioned, coming to sit on the edge of the bed. He glanced Evie’s way again, noticing how young and small she looked while asleep. Only in her early twenties, it should be a time for self-discovery, nights out with friends, and doing what she pleased. Oh, how the apocalypse changed so much. Granted, he spent more time at her age drinking and goofing off than he should have, but it was fun nonetheless.

The world fell not too long after his twenty-third birthday, and he thought at the time it was a blessing in disguise. Now, he didn’t feel that way. Looking at Aaron, without his arm and truthfully without modern medicine, he wished for a world that was just a little kinder to all of those he cared about. At least they were relatively safe behind the walls. He couldn’t imagine trying to help Aaron in his recovery out in the woods. He knew both of the men were good at surviving the extremes, but it wasn’t necessary.

“Paul? Did you hear me?”

He zoned out and felt terrible for it. What a way to show that you cared about someone than to ignore him. “Sorry. I was just thinking and got lost in my thoughts. What did you say?”

“Oh, just that Enid might have a plant that would help with the itchiness. She was going to check with Siddiq and get back to me. What have you been up to?”

“Meeting after meeting,” he admitted. “It’s going to be the death of me. I need to get out there.”

“I wish I could give you an excuse to,” he chuckled. “Maybe I’ll tell Maggie I need some weird book to aid in my recovery and you left it at a safe house.”

“That is a piss poor excuse that even I wouldn’t believe.”

The two laughed. “I’m sorry you’re cooped up in here because of me.”

“What?”

Aaron shrugged, “Maggie trusts few and she protects them fiercely. I suspect she only sends you out with specific people that she also trusts. Has she suggested any runs since I got hurt?”

He didn’t think of that, and it would make sense, too. She knew Aaron from Alexandria and realized he did most of the supply runs with Eric and then Daryl. “I never considered that.”

“It's not to praise me. We are all human and can make mistakes. I think she believes we would work well together and our abilities balanced each other well. I can suggest others to her, so at least you can have some freedom. I don’t know how well you get along with Daryl, but he’s an excellent partner as long as you keep your mouth shut.” The man offered a wry smile. “I struggled with it, but he got used to my chatter.”

“I don’t want to go on any runs without you.” He said it before he thought about it and Aaron stared down at his stump like it was suddenly on fire and with contempt in his eyes. “You’ll get back there. I promise you that.”

“Be right back,” he murmured, and Jesus feared he lost him. He disappeared into the small bathroom, leaving Jesus to wonder if he said something wrong. A minute or two passed, then he heard a frustrated sound from the other room. Weighing his options on what was considered friendly and what would be weird, he got up.

“Aaron?”

“Just a minute,” came the gruff reply.

There was a beat of silence, then another tense noise and the sound of something crashing to the floor. Jesus threw his concerns about friendliness out the window and tried again, “Aaron, are you okay?”

He didn’t respond immediately, and then slowly, the door opened. Aaron was standing in his line of vision, one hand trying to button the top of his pants. He managed the zipper but was struggling to use his right hand to fiddle with the loop. Jesus’s stomach clenched at how simple that task seemed to him at any given time and how humiliated his friend must feel.

Aaron’s hand dropped the pant loop and then brushed against his shirt, showing just enough hair on his lower stomach to make Jesus ache. Fuck. Now is not the time. He swallowed his hormones and realized the curly-haired man was having enough issue that he need not make matters worse.

“Can I help you?” he finally asked, keeping the words polite and unjudgmental.

“I feel like an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot,” he promised him, voice soft and sincere.

The two stared at each other for another pause, then Aaron clipped his head toward the ground so slightly the ninja almost missed it. He closed the space between them and met his gaze briefly, before reaching forward to grab hold of the top of his pants. Any other time, he would quip something ridiculous and flash someone a smile, but this felt so tender and innocent doing so would make him look like a giant ass.

He buttoned the pants and then looked up again. Aaron was staring down at him (height be damned) with an expression he couldn’t quite understand on his face. And Jesus was good at reading people… but if he weren’t mistaken, he would almost think…

“Um…”

“I…”

“You first,” Jesus laughed awkwardly.

“Well, you see…” His eyes trailed to Jesus’s lips and oh holy shit, this was happening. The electricity in the room soared, and he wanted to change his mind and tell Aaron to shut up and push him firmly against the wall.

“Aaron?” Evie’s alarmed voice broke the two apart, and Jesus closed his eyes and tried not to yell “cockblock” across the room. Damn it. He instead put a smile on his face and yelled to her they were in here, and everything was fine. She appeared in the doorway, bedhead and sleepy eyes. “What are you two doing in here?”

He glared at her as soon as he turned her direction. The look on her face said it all. She knew she ruined a moment. “I just…”

Jesus cut him off. “I was just showing Aaron something,” he said lamely which no one in the room bought, himself included. Evie quirked her lip and then made an excuse about having to meet with Enid, darting out of the room before another word was spoken.

He turned back to Aaron, but the spark diminished. The mood was gone.

Aaron glanced down at his pants and then sighed. “I’ve been trying not to dwell because I know that if Daryl weren’t there, I would be dead… but… I keep thinking about how I’m supposed to move on from this.”

“You’ll get there,” Jesus comforted, hating now that things were slightly awkward. “I’ll help you.” The taller man looked at him again, a renewal of hope on his face. While it wasn’t the scene two minutes ago, he couldn’t help but love when the man’s face lit up in any form. “If you want me to that is.”

“Of course,” he said just a bit too quickly.

Jesus grinned. Oh yeah, he definitely had a thing for him too. “Great. First matter at hand? We’re going to get you some pants that are drawstring for the next few weeks. Make that shit easier. And then, as soon as you’re fully healed, I’m going to kick your ass back into fighting shape. Don’t think that I’ll be easy on you either; I’m a hard teacher.”

Aaron laughed, a warm, bubbly laugh that sent the man stumbling with pleasure.

“I wouldn’t want anything less.”

Chapter Text

“You totally cockblocked me,” Paul whined two hours later, sitting on the front steps of his trailer. Aaron was asleep inside, and the two friends were catching up following the awkward conversation she walked in on. Evie gave him a timid smile, knowing very well he was right and hating that the two of them were still dancing around each other.

She kept her secret well. The brunette knew both males liked each other, but still wanted their relationship to form naturally. Teasing and putting them into scenarios together was fine, but the actual work was up to them. And never in a million years would she think it would take this damn long. Paul was socially awkward as it were, and while Aaron was communicable and noble, he too seemed to be a bit emotionally constipated as of late.

“I’m sorry,” she said finally, unable to hide a small laugh. “If I ever would’ve guessed, but oh man, there are so many things I could say about the lead-up.”

The long-haired man shook his head. “I wish I could say it was sexy and something out of a movie. I felt bad for him, Vev. It is something we don’t think twice about.”

She knew what he meant. This was only the beginning for their friend, too. All the things they took for granted for the ease of access would become more difficult for Aaron. She feared when Gracie came to visit him and how he would deal with having her. There were so many obstacles to face involving raising a baby one-armed. She knew his community would help, but Aaron was the helpful one. She prayed they were sensitive to this.

“I mean, now that I think about it, the hair on his v-line, my god,” he moaned. He closed his eyes and then shook his head. “I need to control myself. Even if Aaron pursues it first, he’s going to need more than some idiot trying to get into his pants.”

“You and I both know you would never use him for that, injury or not.”

He gave her a grateful smile. “Thanks.”

“There is nothing wrong with appreciating human anatomy, though. God knows we need something to look forward to in this world.” She kneed him playfully and leaned on his shoulder. “All Enid talks about these days is Alden. It’s driving me insane. I’m beginning to feel like I’m the odd one out here.”

Jesus burst out laughing. “Oh, Vev.”

“What?”

“For someone so bright, you can be so oblivious…”

“What?” she repeated. A noise cut Jesus off from answering her. In the trailer, the two heard Aaron stirring. They exchanged a look and got off their feet, striding into the small building together. Aaron was on the small bed, beads of sweat lining his forehead. His eyes were still closed, but tightly so like he was in pain.

“I’ll grab Enid,” he decided and fled from the trailer, leaving Evie alone.

She crossed the short distance to the bed and gently put her palm on Aaron’s good shoulder and then his forehead. He felt warm to the touch. “Aaron? Can you hear me?”

He whimpered.

“Aaron, I need you to wake up, please,” she said louder, giving the shoulder a slight shake.

He woke with a start, though a groan was the first thing to escape his lips. “Evie?”

“Hey,” she whispered. “You’re burning up. How do you feel?”

Aaron’s eyes were foggy, and his vision seemed off. “Like I’m in a hot car on a summer day.”

“Paul went to get Enid,” she told him and hoped the young doctor wasn’t off with Alden somewhere. She moved over to the small kitchen like area in the trailer and noticed a bottle of water sitting near where Jesus usually read. With a quick motion, she brought it over to him and sat on the edge of the bed. “Take a few sips.”

“Thanks,” he muttered and went to lean forward to get it. She didn’t miss the flinch.

“Aaron?”

He glanced down at his injured arm. “It feels like it’s on fire. Sort of how it felt after she took it off.”

“Would you mind if I looked at it?” she asked. Common sense told her Enid would probably want to look at the arm, but she didn’t want to assume he’d be okay with Evie seeing it. With a quick nod, she took his consent and carefully peeled the cotton layer of material off the arm. Then, while keeping her eyes on Aaron for signs of pain, she slowly removed the bandages.

Both gasped at what they saw. The incision was puffy and red, and Enid’s stitches seemed as if they might tear at any moment. It was infected.

“Oh shit.”

“How did that happen so fast? She changed the bandages this morning,” Evie muttered.

At that moment, Jesus and Enid came into the trailer. Jesus’s face paled at the sight of his friend’s arm. They too exchanged a look, and both turned to face the young doctor. Enid’s eyes remained glued to the injury.

“Enid?” Jesus stated carefully. “I think we need to treat that sooner rather than later.”

She turned slightly to the right as if to glance toward the infirmary. “We can’t,” she said simply, but her voice sounded clipped.

The first one to speak was Aaron. “Why not?”

“One of Karen’s kids had an ear infection. I gave him the last of the antibiotics yesterday. We’re completely out. I can borrow some of what I gave her, but it wouldn’t cure them both.”

Antibiotics were harder and harder to come by as time went on. But without them, there was no way that Aaron would survive. She took a deep breath and turned to her friends. “Then we go on a run, and we hope that we find something. We’ll look in places we otherwise wouldn’t expect. There’s got to be something out there.”

“I’ll go with you,” Paul immediately agreed. “Is there something to at least alleviate the pain until we come back?”

Enid was worried; Evie could tell by her silence and furrowed brow. “We have some ibuprofen and stronger meds. I don’t know how long it’ll hold off the infection spreading. Between Karen’s son and Aaron, we only have enough to last two days.”

“Then we’ll work fast,” Paul decided. “We’ll leave within the hour, go as long as we can. There’s a residential area about five miles north I haven’t looked into. I bet we find something. How far expired still work?”

“At this point, take anything you find. We’ll make it work.” She gave the injured man a tight smile and then glanced toward Barrington house. “I’ll send someone to Alexandria for Siddiq, too. If you come up empty, he’ll have more creative ideas. Maybe they can spare some of their own.”

Aaron was quiet through this exchange. She wanted to tell him everything would be alright, but anyone with sense knew that wasn’t true. Who would’ve thought that something as simple as an infection could be what killed him? She sat down on the bed, making sure she looked him directly in the eye, composing herself more than she felt. “We’ll do whatever we can. I promise you that.”

“Just be safe,” he answered in a small voice. “Don’t get yourselves killed trying to help me.”

Paul huffed but was already packing a bag across the room. “We’ll head out in about a half-hour. Enid, you should have someone stay with Aaron if you can’t. Maybe take turns. Keep that fever down as long as you can. We’ll be back.” He motioned to Evie to grab things from her trailer. She nodded but didn’t miss him coming closer to Aaron. “I second what Evie said. We’ll do everything we can.”

An hour later and the two were off, not that Maggie was thrilled with it. She knew this could potentially head south at any given moment. It was late in the day already, and they would have to cross serious ground if they were to get close to that residential community before nightfall. They rode in an old car, with a tank’s worth of gas. Using the cars were a rarity in recent times. The gas was hard to come by and only approved for important trips. Thankfully, Aaron was considered important. Paul drove first, while Evie studied a map of the area. They were available in the old gift shop of Barrington House. It told tourists other attractions to check out.

She stared at the map, and a smile broke out on her face.

“Wait.”

Paul quirked an eyebrow. “What?”

“We might have hit the jackpot.”

He met her with a dubious gaze. “Evie, I love you, but I’m not following.”

“There is a wildlife refuge and rehabilitation center about two miles from that community you were talking about. It’s north of the highway; we could probably make it there if you pick up speed. I have a thought.”

He motioned for her to continue.

“Kal grew up not far from here. He mentioned it before. Think about it. Maybe they had a vet on the premises. Usually, animal antibiotics are similar to human but in much smaller doses. It’s worth a shot, and it’s not far from where we said we’d go. We can still hit the community tomorrow.”

“That is a good idea. We have to consider that it may be overrun. That is a lot of walkers for two people to clear. We need to be careful.”

“We always are. Besides, I’ve seen you take out small herds yourself.”

“Only when I want to show off.”

She quirked an eyebrow, similar to how he did moments before. “If I’m not mistaken, you did it not too long ago with Aaron.”

“Maybe I did,” he replied casually. She wanted to add a comment about showing off for Aaron but bit her tongue.

“When are you going to talk to him?”

This earned her an exasperated sigh. “Really, Evie?”

“I told you already. You’re wasting precious time here. Let’s be frank, for a second, okay? We might not find anything. This place and the community could be completely wiped clean. If Alexandria cannot spare anything, there’s a real chance he might die. And you’re walking around on eggshells for what? You’re both so damn stubborn, it’s amazing. Just tell him how you feel.”

She finished her rant and noticed he was staring at her. “You should probably keep your eyes on the road.”

“Why did you say we’re both stubborn?”

Shit. Evie considered her options. She didn’t want to do it this way, but maybe this is what he needed. She took a deep breath and then replied, “Because Aaron likes you too. He thinks now he can move on, but he doesn’t know how to talk to you. I was hoping you’d be the one to say something since you tend never to shut up.”

He huffed.

“I’m not wrong. But for God’s sake, Paul. What is the big deal? You take on things that others would never attempt. I remember you during the war. I remember the things you’ve done to keep this community safe. What is so scary about fucking Aaron? He’s a teddy bear.”

“It's not Aaron.”

His words were quiet and unsure.

“Then what is it?”

Jesus shook his head, frustrated, and pulled over to the side of the road. He turned in his seat to look at her directly and shook his head a second time. “I don’t know. I haven’t been really involved with anyone since Alex, and even that didn’t mean anything. Not really. I spent most of this time alone, and now, I don’t want to. I enjoy his company. He’s sincere and funny and does these ridiculous impressions. I guess part of it is fear. What happens if I allow myself to feel this way, and then it’s just gone?”

She didn’t have an answer. Jesus always appeared fearless to her, which in reality was dumb to assume. He was human like the rest of them. Of course things scared him. And she knew he was the type not to get close to people. The first few weeks after he brought her back to Hilltop, he acted that way. It was mindblowing to her that someone could act so funny and nice on the road and then pretend she was just a stranger.

It pissed her off, and she didn’t accept it. She knew part of it was to keep himself from feeling pain like he was trying to now. But shit, was that any way to live? How did he make it through the real world like that, let alone the apocalypse?

“You’re not answering me.”

“I’m trying to think of the right thing to say.” She steadied her breathing. “I understand where you’re coming from, and I know it’s harder for you to trust people and let them in. I know you trust Aaron. You’re good with him. I see it, and so do others. Fear can’t consume you; if it does, none of what we’ve made here, started with these communities means anything. The war meant nothing. People died for nothing. We are what brings hope for tomorrow, and we’re stronger together.”

He didn’t answer.

“And, more than anything, Paul. You make so many happy and keep them safe. It’s about time someone did the same for you. I can’t tell you that this won’t blow up in your face. But for once in your life, put you first. I promise it’ll be worth it.”

He pulled off the side of the road. For a minute, Evie thought he was going to ignore her. Then he murmured, “I’ll talk to him when we get back.”

The center was oddly deserted from the naked eye. Surrounded by a tall metal fence, a large building set back from the road. Beyond it, there were smaller buildings and land for what seemed like miles. Paul parked the car and hid it from view, and they walked along the entrance trying to see if there are any walkers or even humans. Hell, she wouldn’t be surprised to see a stray animal make an appearance. Did the animals all escape or were some locked in cages still?

“Seems quiet,” he observed, glancing at the sky. “It’ll be dark soon. We need to find somewhere safe to hole up until the morning.”

“Let’s get going then,” she agreed and carefully, they scaled the fence into the attraction, checking for any noise. Paul took his knife and banged it on some metal. One lone walker appeared, dressed as an employee, and they took him down with ease. He was particularly rotten, probably dead for years. “Gross.”

He snickered, and the two continued, coming up to the first building. “I can’t fathom that, by the way.”

“Huh?” Evie perched her weapon as they came to the doorway, peeking into the grime-covered windows for any signs of life. Satisfied, she tried the handle. It was open.

“Not finding anything. Aaron dying. I can’t imagine it.”

“Then let’s make sure it doesn’t.”

---

Paul hated the feeling in his chest. He knew why he was out on this run, but Evie reminding him if they failed on their way, someone’s life was the price. Maybe that was the case in some form every time they stepped outside the walls, but this was much more severe.

It was Aaron. Aaron, despite having lost so much in the last year alone, who still smiled at him when they left. Who held more concern for their safety than his own life, which was probably always the case. Someone like Aaron didn’t deserve to be in this predicament, to begin with, and he still managed to be a better person than most.

It was mindblowing to him, and he didn’t want to let him down. Fuck. He really cared for him. The two spent the last six months or so out on runs together. They spent hours up late talking about life before all hell broke loose. Aaron was the definition of noble. He worked to help others and would give you the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it more.

He was honest and understanding, never pushed or asked questions if he sensed it was wrong. He knew Paul was not the forthcoming type and didn’t mind it. Aaron was the kind of company everyone should have, but not enough appreciated.

And when shit just sucked, he’d pull out one of those impressions from before, a well-known actor, or sometimes even their friends. Get some liquor into him, and he did a spot on Rick (as long as Rick wasn’t around). He valued learning about the man from Alexandria and needed more time with him. A lot more time.

They couldn’t fail. Not this time. Not for Aaron.

“Paul?”

Fuck. He needed to stay present. If they were to find the medicine he needed, they would need to look in unusual places. Besides, being in a fog meant he wasn’t there to protect Evie. One mistake in this world was all you needed to make to change it all. He cleared his head and focused on the younger brunette in front of him. Together they would find what they needed. She grinned at him, a small, tiny one but was telling of her personality. He became hopeful.

The first building was empty, at least of anything important. It was a welcome room of sorts, complete with all the same dumb packets that Barrington held, a restroom and some awards the center won years ago.

“This doesn’t seem like the safest spot to stay,” Evie observed, her eyes glued to the setting sun. He agreed with her, but the daylight was almost gone. He nodded and slipped behind a small desk area, rummaging through the contents.

A grin swept his face. “Ibuprofen. Only a few months outdated. It's full. Damn.”

“Awesome,” she agreed. “Are those tampons?”

He chuckled. “Yeah, they are. Guess it was one-stop shopping up here. I’ll grab them. God knows we need enough of them.”

The two did one last sweep and headed out into the fielded area. It was quiet except for the sounds of nature. There was a bird or two in the distance, the wind blowing things around. Times like these reminded him the world might be gone, but nature was still beautiful.

“Let’s set up in that building up ahead,” he told her, raising his weapon as they neared. It remained quiet until he gently tapped a window and a walker slammed against it, thrashing against the glass, puss, and guts splattering the area it stood. Evie rolled her eyes and sighed, going to the door. Inside, they discovered two more stuck on the floor, broken limbs and decomposed skin. Easy enough to take out, at least. This building seemed more promising. It was about the same size as the one up front but separated into multiple rooms.

“I’ll take the two on the left, you grab the right,” he told her, and they took off. The first room he entered was small, and without a window hard to see in the disappearing light. Pleased it seemed to be a veterinary room of sorts, he hoped the others were the same. The stainless steel table before him lay covered in years of dust, proving no one touched the place.

In one of the drawers, he found gauze, medical tape, and other first-aid products. Not what they were looking for, but good none the less. He moved to the cabinets next, finding more of the same. Then, he opened a secondary closet area and couldn’t help but grin. “EVIE!”

She came running, and he felt awful; she probably assumed something was wrong. “What? Are you… is that…?” The look on her face was priceless, and the two shared a stupid grin. “Oh, my God.”

“Let’s dive in.”

They hit the jackpot. There was vial upon vial of liquid medicines and more tablets. Some Jesus wasn’t sure if they could use, but regardless, he filled two bags full and leaned back on the steel table. There were antibiotics inside; he just hoped they were what they needed. Evie left to explore the other rooms, coming back with bags of her own.

“They’re not a strong as their human counterparts, but this is still really good. I’ve heard Siddiq talk about some of these meds before. I think we’re going to be fine. Aaron is going to be fine.”

He nodded, closing his eyes. “I think we should still hit that residential community tomorrow to double-check. You never know what we’ll find. But yeah, it feels nice to secure a win this time.”

“Agreed. Let’s get to bed early, then. We’ll leave at first light — no reason to waste any time. I’ll take first watch, Paul. Get some sleep. You deserve it.”

Paul woke up for his shift hours later, still feeling fantastic. Evie was out within minutes, leaving him alone with his thoughts. He knew he was ridiculous, and she was right to call him out on it, but now having something to go back to and the ability to change how their lives would go felt great. He struggled a lot during the war, differences in opinion, and ways of dealing made being who he wanted to be difficult. He wasn’t a killer; sure, Negan was a giant dick and needed to be taken down, but so many lives were lost, and bloodshed, on both sides.

They were finally getting somewhere when Aaron lost his arm. He wanted to keep on that path; he hoped what happened at the camp wouldn’t deter that. The two left sometime later that morning, taking their treasure with them. The residential area gave them some other medication, which was helpful and other supplies the community always could use. Paul made a note in his head to come back here, it seemed relatively untouched, at least from the units further back.

Evie found a CD of classic rock hits from the 80s, and the two enjoyed listening to Journey, Bon Jovi, and others on the way back, singing along to Don’t Stop Believin’ and Livin’ On a Prayer, both of which seemed fitting for the trip made. He loved watching the girl beside him be a kid, if even for a second. She was sitting with her knees crossed, tapping the dashboard while she sang off-key.

It was perfect. Everything was. He couldn’t have asked for a better run.

They arrived at the gates to attitude from Kal and Eduardo but brushed it off. Their high couldn’t be taken down.

Or so he thought. They got inside, rushed to the infirmary where Aaron was unconscious again. Enid was thrilled at the sight of the bags, but the smile didn’t meet her eyes. Evie started to question it, but she didn’t have a chance. Maggie came to the trailer, having heard of their return.

She whispered in his ear, “We need to talk.”

“Can it wait? I want to help Aaron.”

“No,” she said, her voice dark, and Evie turned at it. She looked at both of them. He then realized she had been crying, eyes dry now but swollen and red. “Something happened while you two were gone.”

“What?” Evie murmured, and Enid and Maggie shared a look. “Maggie, what is it?”

“Rick is dead.”

Chapter Text

Rick always seemed immortal to Evie. He was a living legend to those who knew him, and all he survived. He gave meaning to the word survivor in this shit turned world. Sometimes, he lost his way, but deep down, the man was a born leader with a heart working toward a sustainable future. Jesus admired him, as did Maggie. He was the one who ended the war but started the future. Together, they all held a part in it.

And now he was dead.

Maggie saying this made her heartache and the excitement she felt returning to Hilltop deflate like a balloon. Enid’s weird smile when they entered the trailer made sense now. Maggie stepped out of the trailer with Jesus, to quickly access how to move forward with this information. The rest of the community, sans a few important people, did not know. Maggie did not want to bring the news until she spoke to all those she trusted. That included Paul.

“I can’t believe it. Do we know how he died?”

Enid gave her the story quickly. Rick went down, fighting as he lived. Died a noble death that saved everyone else from more torture. She thought of Michonne, of Judith and how unfair it was. Judith lost all of her biological family, now only having Michonne. She understood that family was not what it was in the previous world, but she still felt terribly for the small girl. Her father was her world. How would the two of them move on without him? How would Alexandria?

“Does Aaron know?”

“No. He’s been out for some time. I need to start these medications as soon as possible. It’s been a fight to keep the temperature down. Siddiq recommended some herbs for the actual wound. It seemed to help, but it was a short term solution. This is good. We need this.”

The impact of her words were more than about Aaron’s injury. The communities couldn’t take another death, especially when they weren’t aware of the one that would shake all to the core.

“He’s going to be devastated.”

“I know. When you were here, getting Jesus, Rick came and spoke to him. He told him how proud he was of what Rick stood for and how he’d always stand by him. I don’t want to tell him. It seems like a final blow, you know?”

“Yeah.” Evie sat down on the chair beside his bed, watching the older man sleep. “He doesn’t need something else right now.”

Things were rough the next twenty-four hours. Paul and Maggie announced to the community about Rick, and the shock and whispers were immediate. Maggie was short and quick with her words, disappearing into Barrington House before anyone could ask her more questions. Evie knew she was grieving; the woman lost just as much as Aaron had in the last few years. Rick was more than a friend; he was family to her. This just sucked.

Aaron floated in and out of consciousness, but not long enough to tell him what happened. Jesus spent a lot of time in the infirmary with him, reading and waiting. Evie knew he would probably wait to talk about his feelings, give Aaron enough time to process what happened. This was understandable, but she still loved knowing that he was going to be the first thing Aaron saw when he finally awoke. He needed the positivity, that much was certain.

Evie went to Alexandria the next day with Kal. They were to gather Gracie’s things and bring her to Hilltop while the community grieved. She needed to be with her father, as she was without him for nearly a month. Evie was silent as they rode on horseback, bringing with them a wagon to trade supplies. She couldn’t imagine the grief the community experienced. It made her want to be in and out, not speak to any of them more than she needed.

“Could you imagine Hilltop without Maggie or Jesus?”

Evie’s head shot up at the words. Kal held a curious expression, and she tried to keep her emotions still. “I don’t want to discuss that.”

“I didn’t mean to…”

“I’m sorry,” she said, softening her tone. “Losing either of them, especially as Aaron struggles in the infirmary and Rick’s body has yet to be recovered, just feels like being kicked in the stomach. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

“I’m sorry,” he said sincerely. “I guess saying it for me makes it easier. We’re human, and it feels surreal. Rick fucking Grimes is dead. How can any of us expect to survive this shit if he can’t?”

“I don’t know, Kal.”

“It makes me question what I do in the community.”

A serious Kal was not something she was used to. He was goofy, often to the point where it became annoying, but she knew he held a heart of gold. She often compared him to Jerry of the Kingdom. You needed to know how to get to know them beyond the bluff. The time or two they shared sentry duty, she acquired some of it.

Kal was interested in forensics and planned to pursue a degree in it when the world fell. He loved sentry duty because it was peaceful, especially at night, when all you heard was nature and the world at peace. Sure, there was the undead, and the risk of intruders never truly went away, but she appreciated why he liked it. He also loved looking up at the stars, something he said was never affected by all of it. That remained the same.

“Even on the worst days since the world fell, I can look up at the stars and know it will be alright.”

Kal blinked at her. “Whoa.”

“I never forgot you said that,” she admitted. “Seemed fitting for today.”

“I didn’t even think you listened to me when I talk.”

She chuckled, “Sometimes, maybe not. Sometimes, I do. I like late night sentry duty Kal better than the one trying to stand out as much as possible.”

His cheeks flushed in the mid-morning sun. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” she disagreed. “We need humor in this world, too. But to get back to what you were saying, what do you mean you’re questioning your role?”

“Its why I offered to come out today,” he revealed. “I sit at that post most hours of my day. I sometimes escort Maggie, but that is rare. I can offer so much more to this community, but I’ve been scared for some time. I guess my thought was that sitting behind the walls, I could protect others, which is true. But I can also protect others beyond the walls. Rick Grimes was an excellent leader, but he also knew his way around. What kind of person am I if I let others do all the dangerous work, and I sit comfortably on my post? I’m not saying I’m the next Grimes, but I want to do more.”

She smiled at him, understanding where he was coming from. She knew what stopped him from coming out of the walls for some time, so it was great to see him face that fear. “I think that’s great. Thanks for coming with me.”

“Anytime, any place, Garden of Eve.” And thus returned the goofy side.

Sometime later, the duo arrived at the Alexandria Safe Zone, solemn eyes greeting them. Inside, Evie met with Rosita and Father Gabriel, the only faces she recognized among those milling around. Michonne and Judith were noticeably absent. A young woman that Evie remembered as Kassie came forward with a shaky smile. In her arms, she held Gracie. Gracie, unaware in her toddler stage, beamed at them.

“Look, But-Fly!”

Evie forced a smile at the excitement on her face, as a yellow butterfly flew past. The conversation with Aaron felt like centuries ago, and she swallowed the lump in her throat. “Hey, Gracie. That is a pretty butterfly.”

She turned to her accusingly. “Dada?”

“Soon, baby,” she soothed, and Kassie offered a weak smile of her own.

“How is he?”

“Better now that he has the medicine he needs. It’ll be a struggle, but if anyone is up for it, it would be Aaron. He’s strong.”

The woman nodded. “I just worry about how much more he can take.” The woman shot her a knowing glance. Evie vaguely remembered that Kassie was Aaron’s neighbor and was for some time. She knew firsthand how he struggled following Eric’s death. The two were friends, not that Aaron didn’t have many people who cared. It was harder to hide from the woman who watched your child for you.

“He’s surrounded by people who care.” She took a deep breath and sighed. “With all due respect, your community is mourning. I’m not sure this would be the best place for him to recover, at least not for a few weeks.”

“I agree,” she said in a sad voice. “The last twenty-four hours have been rough. I’ve been assisting Father Gabriel and the others in the council as much as possible, but it’s hard to do that and watch this bundle of energy.”

Gracie giggled. “But-fly! Down! But-fly! Keeeee!” The whine was pitiful, and the woman set the girl down, and her pudgy legs took off, gleefully shrieking over the fluttering insect. Oh, to be so young and unaware again. The two watched for a second and then returned to the conversation.

“Kal is dropping off the supplies with Siddiq now. We’re unfortunately not staying long. If we leave within the hour, we can make it back to Hilltop tonight before sundown. Are this Gracie’s things?”

“Yes.” The woman nodded to two boxes filled with various toddler items. “Enough clothes for a month, toys, and other things she might need. I also packed some of Aaron’s clothes and toiletries. I’m not sure what Siddiq brought when he stopped by and wanted to make sure he was comfortable. Please send my love and well wishes. Aaron is a good friend. I want him to know if I could step away, I would.”

“I promise to tell him. He speaks highly of you,” she assured the blonde woman.

Kal returned then, holding a large box, including medical supplies Siddiq thought the community could spare. Father Gabriel followed with vegetables and several bottles of the community’s brew. She noticed he did not say much, which didn’t surprise her. Rick was more than a leader to these people. For the majority, he was family.

“Thank you,” she whispered to him, squeezing his shoulder.

He nodded but didn’t meet her eyes. She took a deep breath and gathered up Gracie, who quickly tired in her but-fly chase. The girl nestled her chin into Evie’s shoulder, giving sad eyes to the two now standing away. “Bye, bye,” she said, waving her small hand. “I see Da da!”

Evie smiled. “He is going to be thrilled to see you.”

The trip back to Hilltop was fast, as keeping a two-year-old entertained in the back of a wagon proved difficult. Evie pointed out various wildlife, trees, and bugs to the restless toddler, but she wanted to run around and explore. Holding her down and showing her a book, her bracelet, or even watching the horses did little to sustain her curiosity. She couldn’t wait to get her inside the walls, where at least she could run about without fear of walkers or other dangers.

Inside, she waddled over to Jesus, who was waiting for them when they arrived. He bent down to her level, grinning ear to ear as she rushed into his arms. Gracie might be a bit too friendly for her own good, but it was sweet to see her interaction with her long-haired friend.

Until…

“Ow!” Jesus yelped. “That wasn’t nice, Gracie.”

She giggled. “Horsie!”

Evie nearly doubled over laughing. “Gracie, Uncle Paul isn’t a horse.”

The toddler jutted her lower lip out, tugging on his hair a second time to prove her point. Paul nearly tumbled forward. “HORSIE!”

“Guess you’re a horsie now, Jesus,” Kal snickered as he walked past. Paul managed to sneak one leg under him, causing him to tumble. Kal rolled his eyes and pointed a finger, mouthing profanity at the man as he made his way toward Barrington. The two would finish this later.

The longhaired man picked up the confused toddler, carrying her toward the infirmary. Evie followed and soon was seated near the bed, trying to keep Gracie relatively quiet. She didn’t seem to notice the bandages on his arm as she was thrilled even to see her father. She clapped her hands gleefully, offering them both a toothy smile, like look what I’ve got, this is all mine.

Aaron stirred as Gracie squealed, reaching hungrily for her father’s touch. His eyes peeled open at the noise, and his lips parted. “You got the medicine.”

“That’s not all we got, A.”

He slowly turned his head to see his daughter beaming at him. “Dada!” Aaron’s face must’ve grown three or four shades warmer. It was instantaneous healing. Evie could hardly contain herself. She shared a smile with the other man in the room, then carefully set Gracie in his arm.

“Hi, Sweetheart. I didn’t expect to see you.”

“Dada!”

He looked at the two standing in front of him. “We thought she could use her father and vice versa.” And, Evie thought solemnly, your community is grieving, and your babysitter needed a break.

“Daddy missed you so much, Gracie.” He burrowed his face into the crook of her neck, and she giggled as the beard tickled her. Evie made a mental note to have Jesus help him trim it; it was getting unruly even for Aaron’s standards. She wrapped her arms around her father, kissing his cheek over and over. Then, she noticed it.

“Booboo?”

It was as if he too forgot about the injury. His panicked eyes met Jesus’, and the man nodded as if to say it was alright. A visibly shaky breath exited Aaron, and he moved the small girl so she could see his face. “Daddy got a very bad booboo. He’s going to need a lot of bandaids and kisses to make it feel better. Can you help daddy with a kiss?”

She nodded eagerly, moving over so that she gently pressed her lips to the base of the bandages. Her lack of fear about the injury was impressive. Maybe her age was a pro, not a con for once.

“That’s my good girl,” he cooed.

Evie touched Jesus’ shoulder and motioned to the door. “Maybe we should get Enid and see if he’s strong enough to move back into your trailer. The bigger bed would be much more comfortable for the two of them.”

“Great idea, I’ll go find her. I’ll be right back.”

Alone with Aaron, she took a seat next to the bed and let Gracie play with her hair. Aaron was quiet as if he was absorbing the comfort of having his daughter so close. She was an adorable kid, well behaved, and mannered for the most part. Little did she know, she truly was his saving grace.

“You’re awfully quiet over there.” Aaron gave her a small smile. “Did you find anything else on the run that was useful?”

“A lot, actually. We stopped at an animal rehabilitation center, which is where your meds came from. Enid said they are very similar to human meds. The housing community was pretty untouched, too. Some things edible and a bunch of clothes. I got an awesome new CD, and Jesus is going to need a new bookshelf again, soon.”

The man chuckled. “His collection has made this recovery more bearable. How is Alexandria?”

Evie froze. What would she tell him? She couldn’t tell him the truth, not yet at least. He was only just getting stronger and seemed hopeful. The news of Rick would surely ruin that. She wasn’t even sure if it was her place to do so. Her panic grew, and she tried to think of what to say. She didn’t want to lie to the man either. He was always truthful with her and would expect the same.

The door opened, saving her. She glanced at Jesus and Enid with wild, worried eyes. “Aaron asked about Alexandria,” she blurted.

Her weirdness went over his head. “Why is that such a weird question?” he laughed. “I live there.”

“Aaron…” Jesus sighed, much like Evie, unable to keep a secret from him. “Something happened while you were out. Something serious. There is a reason we went to get Gracie. We felt that it would be beneficial for you both to be here right now.”

His eyes grew suspicious. “What is it? Tell me.”

The three exchanged a look, and Jesus nodded. “I’m sorry. Rick is dead.”

And then silence. Aaron’s expression was hard to read. He still held Gracie close, but his eyes were far away, unable to process what was said. He shuddered in a breath and then asked, “How?”

“Justin didn’t turn the herd. It was coming toward the camp. Rick tried to move it, but he got hurt. To save the communities, he blew up the bridge. We haven’t found his body. Daryl and Michonne have been searching the area.” The group didn’t talk for some time. Aaron sighed, pulling Gracie closer to him, kissing her forehead. Words were unneeded. The mood was somber; everything had changed.