"I understand." The disappointment in Rick's voice is palpable, but his eyes convey the truth of his words.
Daryl feels horribly guilty regardless.
"It's just...I never really fit in here," he says, gesturing at the suburban landscape surrounding them. "I tried, but it...it just ain't-"
Rick lays a quieting hand on Daryl's shoulder. "Look, I get it. I do. I know you've been hoping for something more permanent since the prison." He pauses briefly. "Have you decided where you're going?"
Yes. "Nah. Not yet. But I won't be far. Promise." Daryl looks off to the horizon, hoping Rick doesn't call him on his bluff. "I might travel between communities for awhile. Maybe do some longer range runnin'."
That, at least, isn't a lie. Daryl knows where he wants to be and where he's going to end up. He knows where he belongs. He has for a while. But they're rebuilding an entire world, and there's still so much to do. He just hopes that when he does travel, he will have a certain companion with him. It's possible that might take some convincing. Or it might not. He has no idea, really.
Deciding to move permanently to the Hilltop wasn't a snap decision on Daryl's part, but thus far he hasn't spoken to Maggie or...anyone else about it. He'd been staying in Alexandria during the war against Negan, traveling from there to the Kingdom to the Hilltop and back, checking in with the people, seeing what everyone needed for food and other supplies, and delivering what he was able to. He never stayed in one place more than a few days, convincing himself he preferred to be on the road. To be free.
Liar, a little voice inside would always taunt him. Might've been Merle's. Might've been his own. Either way, Daryl knew where he was being pulled to. It was as undeniable as gravity itself. He knew what, or better who was on his mind night after night, invading his thoughts and making sleep damn near impossible. He knew who he thought about during the long hours on the bike, wind whipping through his no-longer-filthy hair. He knew why he kept himself clean and relatively groomed now. He knew the face and voice and body that came to mind when he wrapped a hand around himself and bit back his moans, unable to stop, not wanting to, that name, his name on Daryl's lips and in his mind and heart and helplessly given voice to every time he came. The one who popped, uninvited, into his mind the moment he awoke, alive and unharmed, day after day.
And earlier today he had decided it had been long enough. He packed the few belongings he had, readied up his bike, and walked around town to say his goodbyes, which he thought was stupid anyway.
It's not like I'm gonna be that far away. It's not like I'm never gonna see any of them. Besides, I've got family at Hilltop too. And the Kingdom. We're all spaced out. No big deal.
But when he had attempted his first goodbye, Aaron and Eric's eyes had simultaneously filled with tears and Daryl immediately broke down into sobs. They'd always been so kind to him, so welcoming, and now he was leaving. Moving away to chase after a fucking man. He felt pathetic and embarrassed, even though they had no idea where he was going or why.
He had said nothing, just let the them both pull him into a group embrace and pat his back and wish him well, all while blubbering "thank yous" like a useless idiot.
And if he wasn't mistaken, there were definite knowing looks exchanged between the two of them, but they didn't voice their thoughts, though they seemed obvious to Daryl. Or maybe he was just projecting. Either way, damn these perfect couples and their telepathic conversations. He had a feeling Rick and Michonne would be the same once he got to them.
Tara and Rosita had been next, and although Daryl had never fully gotten past his guilt over Denise's death, he knew Tara never placed any blame on him, and she was fully past it at this point, or as past it as she could ever be. In fact, if the two women in front of him had been pretty close friends before Rosita was shot by the Saviors, at this point they were essentially joined at the hip. Daryl wasn't even certain as to the exact nature of their relationship anymore, especially when he'd watch them smile at each other or when Tara would lay her hand over Rosita's (which, admittedly, had been happening an awful lot lately). But they seemed so happy.
Daryl's gut always clenched at the thought of others finding that kind of happiness. It happened with Tara and Rosita just like it did with Rick and Michonne or Aaron and Eric or Carol and Ezekiel. And that of course made him feel guilty all over again. He didn't resent other survivors for finding something to hold onto. It's just something he never realized he really wanted until recently. And now that he did, he wanted it badly.
"Where will you go?" Rosita asked.
"Ain't decided yet. It's all up in the air. Y'know."
Tara began to laugh in that dry way of hers. Daryl thought that if anyone could bring levity to a post-apocalyptic undead world, it was Tara Chambler. She never lost her sense of humor. But then he realized the humor was directed toward him.
"Bullshit!" she exclaimed between chuckles.
Rosita shushed her. "We don't know what Daryl is thinking," she said softly.
Tara side-eyed her. "Are you kidding me? Were you not just saying the other night that-"
Rosita's hand over Tara's mouth silenced her for a moment. I should try that with Paul sometime, anything to shut that little shit up, Daryl thought, and then immediately turned red as his thoughts went places. Again. For about the twentieth time that very day. That damn mouth and those damn eyes and his stupid sweetness. The kind to kick your ass and patch your wounds at the same time and you'd thank him with the utmost of gratitude. At least, everyone at Hilltop seemed to. They all loved Paul. Not that he could blame them. The asshole certainly was lovable. Dammit!
Rosita cleared her throat, tearing Daryl away from his wandering mind. Thank Jesus. I mean not Jesus. Someone else. Thank Buddha. Fuck Jesus. No, not that either. Fuck's sake.
It was a small miracle Daryl wasn't voicing his thoughts out loud, but they seemed obvious to the two women in front of him. Unless it was projecting once again. Or maybe gaydar. Daryl felt mildly suicidal over having used the word gaydar, even in his own mind, but he recovered long enough to give Tara and Rosita a distracted hug and kiss to each of their cheeks.
"I'll see you both soon, okay?"
"You should bring Jesus with you next time," Tara smirked and Rosita elbowed her side with a suppressed giggle.
Daryl decided that he hated people. But there was nothing for it. He still had to give farewells to a few more of them.
He caught Michonne and Carl doing target practice with some of the townsfolk. He looked down and scuffed his feet at the ground and mumbled his goodbyes sheepishly. He was ready for more knowing looks or pointed words, but felt almost pleasantly surprised between his sobs that the goodbye was pretty much all hugging and crying, almost no conversation to be had.
But, Daryl noted as he finally left Michonne and Carl and walked toward their and Rick's house, they hadn't seemed surprised. They hadn't seemed surprised at all.
He had known there was something off then. Every person in Alexandria who meant something to him had looked at him like they had wanted to say more. Hell, Tara, with her total lack of a filter, had said more. But it is only now, thinking back to his other goodbyes that Daryl realizes how obvious he must be.
Rick interrupts his inner monologuing.
Daryl comes back to himself. "Huh?"
Rick gives a sort of sad smile. "Said where you headin' next?"
"Oh." Daryl smiles in return. "Probably the Kingdom. Haven't seen Carol for a bit."
Daryl still has to repress a cringe at that stupid settlement's name. Talk about being up your own ass. But he has to admit- the people there are good people. Carol clearly has taken to life there, is happy, belongs. And as much as Daryl may roll his eyes at the idea of Zeke being anything resembling an actual king beyond his dramatic and flamboyant personality, he certainly does treat Carol like a queen. And Lord knows the woman deserves it after the mountain of shit she's had to climb the past few years.
It's definitely not a place Daryl would ever like to live, but it's a perfect fit for Carol. The Kingdom is weird, in his opinion, and it makes him feel somewhat uncomfortable, but it's not a horrible place to visit. Sometimes. Once in a great while. If he were honest, he would kind of prefer Carol to visit him. Preferably with Shiva.
Rick nods. "Carol wrote me recently. Talked about how much she misses you."
Daryl once again feels a flush of guilt. He knows he's probably been a little cold the last few times he's gone to visit Carol, but the woman has always had the most uncanny ability to see right through him. Daryl wasn't ready to talk during those visits, so he avoided any real conversation with Carol beyond small talk and shop talk.
I'm ready now though, he thinks. It's one of the reasons he wants to see Carol before going to the Hilltop, even though it's technically only been about a week and a half since his last run to the Kingdom. Daryl knows that Carol realizes something is up, she might even know what it's about, and either way he's ready to be honest with her. He knows he owes his closest friend that much.
But now Daryl's other closest friend is standing right in front of him, eyes kind and curious, handsome face curved into an understanding smile, hand still a comforting weight on his shoulder, and Daryl feels a sudden and uncontrollable urge to blurt out what's going on to Rick as well.
The man in front of him must sense it, for he tenses a moment, before saying, "You sure there isn't anything else you wanna talk about before you head out?"
And all at once Daryl feels his chest and throat tighten and his eyes get hot with tears and it's suddenly too much.
Rick gives him a questioning look.
Understanding dawns on Rick's face which quickly gives way to an almost panicked appearance. "Is he okay? Did something happen? I only just saw him the other week-"
"No, he's fine," Daryl interrupts. "Or he was two days ago when I last saw him. It's about him and me. Me and him."
There's mild confusion written on Rick's face, but underneath that superficial layer, Daryl can see he already knows. Maybe he doesn't even know that he does, but he does.
"Nothin's happened," Daryl mumbles, embarrassed and scared for so many reasons he doesn't want to give thought to right now, so he keeps talking, ignoring the flushing of his face and pounding of his heart, his words coming out in a rush, tripping over one another in a wave of unstoppable feeling.
"Nothin's happened, but I want it to. I have...for a long time. I don't even know when exactly. Prob'ly when we met. I mean, I felt somethin' then. Tried not to, ya know. Was scared. But it was there. And then you and Michonne were so happy, and Abe talked about settling down, and Denise told me to face my fears...and Negan ruined that for awhile for me. He did. I couldn't...even think about it anymore. And then I was there. At the Sanctuary. A slave. I ate dog food, Rick. I ever tell you that?"
Daryl looks up long enough to see Rick's tear-stained face as he shakes his head 'no'.
"I did. That fucker Dwight brought me fuckin' Alpo sandwiches. And I ate them. What else could I do? Thought every day I wasn't never gettin' out of there. Thought I'd die there. Then Paul showed up. And he stayed. It didn't matter that Sherry was the one that opened the door. Paul stayed for me. He got me to a safe place. Gave me a place to shower. Clothes. Food. Helped bring me back from the dead. Got me thinkin'."
Daryl isn't finished, not even close, but he needs to stop for a moment. This is probably the most he's talked at one time since the dead started eating the living, or even before that. He needs to breathe.
Rick takes a deep breath and lets it out. "Brother. I am so happy for you," he says as he pulls Daryl into a full-bodied hug. The familial term sets
Daryl off all over again of course, but he returns Rick's strong embrace with equal fervor.
"We never even talked about it yet," Daryl sniffles. I'm afraid if I just show up, he's gonna know. He's gonna know how I feel."
Rick let's go and pulls back so he's looking into Daryl's eyes. "So?"
Daryl wipes his eyes. Such a sissy.
Daryl wants to say so many things: "So what if he doesn't like me? How do I even ask something like that?! I never done anything like this before. I never been in love. I never had real sex, not when I really wanted to. I want everything. I want to spend the rest of my life with him." And decidedly darker thoughts like "I'm glad for the apocalypse and all the terrible stuff it's brought because it's allowed me to meet him."
But Daryl is incapable of voicing any of it. Maybe to Carol when he visits her. He will try again then. More than likely he won't have to say anything. She'll just know.
Instead he wipes at his eyes as his mouth twitches into a smile. "S'pose you're right," he says, pretending his heart isn't about to explode out of his chest in terror. "S'pose all I can do is try."
Rick's eyes twinkle in his intelligent, yet completely oblivious, way. "Exactly!" The man sounds almost jovial, apparently deciding Daryl's crisis has been completely solved and there's absolutely no reason to panic (damn him).
They hug once more before parting. Daryl walks down the lovely suburban block toward his motorcycle. He mentally pats himself on the back for making it through so many goodbyes and awkward conversations. Things got a bit dicey when he told Rick about Paul, but his friend doesn't think he needs to worry. Maybe he's right. Maybe there is no reason to worry.
Daryl's last thought as he revs up his bike is how likely he is to survive his conversation with Carol. As he drives off in the direction of the Kingdom, he reckons the odds aren't good.