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Quiet when I'm coming home and I'm on my own

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Clash was an understatement where the two of them were concerned. Still, Jesus couldn’t possibly leave Daryl there even if he was more actual asshole than just a pain in the ass. And he wasn’t. Not really.

Aaron had really drilled- nagged- that into both of them. Neither was a bad guy, neither had ever done anything to actually intentionally hurt the other. If they gave each other half a fucking chance they’d probably realize they had a lot in common.

Well, realize they would because there weren’t going to be a bunch of safe moves for Dixon after he was sprung out of Negan’s prison. Jesus shudders to think of the dungeon that place must look like, what he knows it looks like. Even if, at the time, Negan had been trying to impress him, it’d take an idiot- willfully so or not- to look past the treatment of those who dared defy him. It was worse than a beating, worse than the ultimate beating, when a punishment begged his attention. He probably wouldn’t personally dole out whatever torment had been decided for Daryl, especially if his big plans for the guy were anything like Jesus’ suspicions. It’d be unique, and Daryl would definitely fight in a completely original (if not foolish) style, against the offers that would come soon if they haven't already.

Not that he didn’t understand the creep factor, the total insult, and the deep indescribable ache to either give up or give in. Wasn’t that about the same? He knew his ally was stubborn until the end, sometimes wondered how he’d lasted this long in life, but that would be underestimating the skills of a guy that had given him one of the best chases of his life. Easy. The guy was tough, they’d need him. He was a father, and that was already clearly destroying the kids and the man that needed to hold it together for his family and the people that needed him more than ever to inspire the troops to get this thing done.

Jesus didn’t feel like visiting the part of the planning process that had been spurred on by not wanting another living soul to go through what he had. Maybe it’d be a little different, but there was enough shared traits between Dixon and himself to enthrall Negan in that eerie way he had valued an emotionally wrecked but otherwise astonishly capable and informed young man just a few years ago. As bad a taste as even the thought left on his tongue, Negan had *fallen* for that combination. Genuinely wanted to make him happy. Got pretty close sometimes, enough that in the old days he’d have a hard time finding employment with a couple detailed sexual harassment cases in his file, but he never touched too long or gave the impression that ‘no’ wouldn’t be enough forever.

Alright, in a way he was respectfully (?) inspired by rejection, tried new tactics, even respected the space when his ‘favorite Savior’ (yeah he’d given him the nickname) moved on to Hilltop. Still barely contained himself when his people began demanding what accounted to old world protection money racket shit. He was always giving Hilltop special consideration, always hinting at greener pastures, but he could have easily traded Jesus away by making a deal with spineless old Gregory and never had.

“As far as I know,” Jesus mutters to himself as he takes an easy ride to the Sanctuary. When this was all over he couldn’t wait to tell Daryl about it. Maybe he’d get a laugh out of it. The guy would need time though.

Even if Carl had been a champ when he snuck into the compound, tricking the trickster with that innocent face of his. How he managed with the new look, or at all considering, was beyond the reluctantly dubbed ‘ninja’. Rick’s teenager was deceptively sly. He sure as hell didn’t get that from his dad, and didn’t learn it from the other one. The former just lacked the ability, the latter seemed to think bending the truth (no matter who’s life or feelings it saved) was a waste of his precious time.

Kid must’ve inherited that from his mother. A fact that seemed to put a smile on some faces, and a distant terror in the eyes of his biological dad. Carl had inherited that honest face, the big blue eyes (even down one these days) that kept getting him out of the trouble he boldly walked into. Hard to say if that’s how the kid survived his evening with Negan, though. Knowing the fucker, Carl pulled off some impressive shit and maybe shut him up. He’d like to ask about it, would later, but it hadn’t been a priority. Seemed like the teen was holding it together, as best he could, even at the end of his rope and terrified. The real problem was missing yet another piece that made them whole, made the entire group a family. They’d lost their heart, friends had disappeared when they should’ve been there, so a kid had stepped up the way his old man couldn’t.

Not to blame Rick completely, though if you set yourself up as the big dick in charge, you’d better follow through. Whatever had drawn Negan to his extremely creepy obsession with Grimes, the Sheriff had better deliver a challenge somehow. Yeah, they’d done well concealing Maggie’s whereabouts, making the Saviors think the fragile woman had not survived the trauma that evening. Negan’s own personal horror show. If Jesus didn’t think he knew him even better, he’d say (ok he wouldn’t because it’d sound awful) that they’d gotten off light. This was just the beginning and a wrench needed to find itself firmly jammed in that psycho’s plans. Now, if he could just get in and out without being spotted he’d be all set.

***

That went off better than expected. So much better than it could have that Jesus is even relieved when Daryl gets twitchy at a noise just around the lot where his bike and freedom was waiting. It’s a damn surprise he’s got it out for just one guy. Maybe Fat Joey was all he could get his hands on, maybe the fucker had been much crueler than he looked. He physically stood no chance, even with Daryl’s bare fists that big guy was pulp.

Jesus didn’t remember him right away, not that it matters now. The guy is meat, his belt hugging the only recognizable thing in the picture that moments ago was just...a guy. He’d sworn he wasn’t armed. In times like these that was more than enough a sin to expect death at best. Jesus didn’t like to kill. Didn’t mean he hadn’t.

When he shakes Daryl out of it, he’s sure to search his eyes, to feel the hunter’s body relaxing under a loose but firm grip on his shoulders. “Do you have this? Daryl, tell me you’re ok.”

“M’fine.” Like a snap of the fingers it’s gone, like the mythical Grimes rage he’d been told about by Maggie mostly. Aaron had been out of town for most of the episode inside Alexandria. He’d related that it was possible he’d noticed the look, heard the madness already carefully reeled back and controlled. Aaron’s concern at the time had been his dying friend, the woman that refused to let him go even though they all knew what was coming. He’d thought she’d wanted it. He just wished she’d had more time, more of the unwavering strength he trusted from that woman, to set up the right players, put the town in a good position.

Oh she’d had her plans, which didn’t exclusively include Rick. There wasn’t much he could do about that now. Every time they were a few steps ahead they fell a few steps behind. There’d been moments when they could’ve done more, done differently, but some bridges were burnt and now they were scrambling. Maybe if the group were whole it wouldn’t feel that way.

“Good. I knew you would be. Your bike is there, let’s go.” Daryl shivers for a second at the feel of Jesus’ arms around his waist, more so than he had when Jesus assured him he could change out of those prison clothes without a single peek. He shakes himself out of it and allows whatever enjoyment guys like him get out of motorcycles to keep him grounded. Jesus wants to suggest that meditation is easier and safer, but now was not the time or place. And it would be ignored like always.

“Hold on tight,” Daryl jokes. He seems to be reminding himself too, taking it easy on the roads out. He knows how to get past any checkpoints. With that much coming and going it was easy enough, and they were both dressed to blend in.

They stop at Hilltop, for a number of reasons. Jesus had considered the Kingdom but there wasn’t much there for Daryl, and if he hadn’t gone insane by the indoctrination attempts at the Sanctuary, he likely wouldn’t appreciate the cheeriness of Ezekiel’s Kingdom. Sure, he’d introduce them all very soon. That was a must now, whether Zeke liked it or not he would be fighting. After casualties caused by the splinter group not too long ago he’d likely be ready- Jesus would use any and all leverage he had to be sure of that.

Taking another detour just beyond the Hill, where there’s a thick patch of tall trees as far as the eye can see, Jesus takes a familiar path. Daryl follows easily, neither his footsteps or pushing the bike along make much sound. No questions, no attempt to lead or even walk at Jesus’ side, he follows in silence for a full fifteen minutes. “It’s not long now,” the scout assures the guest. He’s frustrated with them both. Nobody wants to do this but, does it need to be done? Here? Now? By him and literally by him *alone*? Yeah. Fuck. “Daryl.”

“Hmm?” The tracker stops, listening carefully. This time when Jesus grabs him he doesn’t move a muscle, doesn’t tense up or fall to pieces. He just stands there. His ally knows what this feels like, is never prepared for what it looks like.

Maggie had been a little different, tough but terrified and grieving and a woman that wasn’t foolish enough to keep everything built up when it might hurt her or those depending on her later. She’d broken, skipped right by the usual stages and just asked an exhaustive number of questions neither of them could really answer. All her friend had been able to give her was, “you’ve got part of him, and you had him. He’s gone now and there’s no getting him back or making things normal again. But there’s still life after this.”

A feeble sound from Daryl is all he has to work with when he dares pull him a little tighter, look where they ought to be meeting eyes until the tracker stops casting his downward. He wants to yell at him, tell him this is no good, but obviously they’ve both done this to themselves. Negan wasn’t the first monster to try to break either of them. He wasn’t even successful. It was just insult, guilt, terror, and the not knowing that was weighing on his tentative ally. Truth be told, they’d found common ground before, when Jesus had found time to join the Alexandrians on a few runs, or sit for dinner with the Raleighs. “What- how...how am I supposed to ever make up for this?”

Not the reaction Jesus had expected at first. Still he knows exactly what the other man means when a crumpled polaroid is produced from a pocket and carefully smoothed out. Of course, whoever was responsible for wearing Daryl down would have taken every chance to remind him of the last time he’d seen his friends. He’d have no idea if anyone else had suffered the same fate. His boyfriend included. Fortunately, despite his excellent gaydar, there were very few that ever picked up on the relationship without knowing them. “Every day, as if I didn’t know what I’d done. What I hadn’t done.”

Jesus dreaded filling the other man in. There was nothing left to lose when he himself went into, and eventually escaped, the Sanctuary. Negan had been convinced that they were a match made in heaven, and to this day it made the man’s skin crawl to wonder if it was just his natural skills in this world and passing resemblance to the biblical Savior that drew such attention. There was definitely a serious tone to the official introductions- almost as if Negan had dropped that deeply inappropriate jolly way he made most horrible declarations. If he were being completely honest with himself, it was nothing more than wishful thinking that made him question whether the other man’s attachment reached beyond a bad pun and rounding out the ‘theme’ of the place.

“You couldn’t have done anything. The damage was already done. The choice was already made before any of your knees hit pavement. Believe me, if reason is what you want, your friend was taken because that’d hurt the most. Negan’s a monster, but he’s a smart monster. He read you, he knew you. I bet every last one of you looked at Glenn and thought, anybody but him. I bet when shit got really scary, when it was clear he’d do something, and no matter how long you’d been sitting there listening to his boring bullshit while your legs went fucking numb, you all looked and tried to ask, you good? And he was, wasn’t he? As long as it was nobody else. Negan saw that. And there’s nothing anybody could’ve done to stop that.”

Daryl goes almost limp, or seems like he’s about to, when he falls into the other man’s open arms. His own go around Jesus’ back, holding so tightly his nails digging into the leather on his back hurt. That’s reassuring, at least, even if the new appreciation Jesus has for Dixon is that when he lets go and really cries into his shoulder, it’s the most awful childlike sound he’s ever heard. Shallow breaths and hiccups leave just enough room for Daryl to ask how he’ll ever look at Maggie again.

“She doesn’t blame anybody but Negan. And you know her. Know how tough she is, right? Her and the baby are going to be just fine and we’re going to take those bastards down. She’s strong, hurting, but strong. I need you to at least pretend to get it together because she’s still fragile. For one, she’s got a condition- don’t worry, Carson keeps an eye on it. It’s also not been as long as it feels. I know every second feels like an eternity, but it’s not until that passes when you know you’re moving forward. She needs you, anybody, to keep her head in the game. I’m sure you’ve had to play that guy before. So she’s here, and you can see her, but first, are you ok?”

“Fine.”

Paul pulls back, holds Daryl steady. He’s weak and not prepared for this, not this way and not from this guy. “Honestly. Are you? The guy has no limits.”

Daryl laughs. “Nah, idiot just tried to *recruit* me.”

“Me too, once.” Jesus says evenly, looking down finally. He hadn’t meant to say that, but Daryl might need it. He needed to face whatever bullshit had happened before they faced a Savior again.

“Had worse.” Daryl initiates the hug, would say it’s just to shut the guy up, shut this down. He’s not even sure what this is for. That kind of intimacy he reserved for the kids, Rick to a point.

“Carl will be around soon. I can get Rick, and a few of the others. If you’re like me, you’ll want to dive right back in. Which means our number one priority is numbers and firepower. We’ve already run into a bit of a snag on firepower.”

“I know. Whacko dragged me around when he was collectin’ our guns and shit. I bet someone was smarter than that. Better fucking have been.”

“Yeah, they tried. Didn’t end up with much. If Hilltop had anything like that to hand over, well, we’d have pretty much what we have now. A small stash and that’s thanks to Simon thinking no one has the guts to go after more than rabbits and deer.” Daryl snorts a laugh. “I know, you don’t need firepower for that. They do. I thought you understood our problem the first time around Mr. Dixon.”

“Ya got more problems than lack of basic survival skills. Though, might be a smidge more capable than the original Alexandria group.” Jesus feels like the wind has been knocked out of him then. He knows the other unpleasant shit he’s yet to share with the refugee. The guy is tough, doesn’t look any less tough after breaking down a moment ago. He’s still rubbing his eyes with the back of dirty sleeves - Jesus had brought fresh clothes that had been scrubbed to hell and back. Tammy Rose was speechless when the scavenger dropped off a simple tank and trousers that he’d borrowed from Daryl’s room in the neighboring community, had just given her a deadline while she cursed him out, less affectionately than usual. They’d rescued the signature vest, anything else that held sentimental value, from the Sanctuary. “Lucky there’s guys like me and yourself.”

“Yes, we have all of our shit together, definitely.” It would be fun to play with Daryl for a while, truly, and they’d already been on the way to a solid friendship (where were those all suddenly cropping up from) behind their mutual friend’s back. Well, behind Aaron’s back. Jesus wasn’t about to give up his claim to having even a sliver of Eric’s time and friendship. The guy had been infectious. He remembered well the first time they’d all sat down together, how protective and familiar the married couple had been in Dixon’s case. They alternated from gentle scolding by the redhead to deflecting blame elsewhere (Rick mostly, who Aaron had never been completely sure of despite growing nearly fond of him).

Eric was full of life. Was more than that. His energy was indescribable and unrivaled. The nurturing capacity you couldn’t avoid if you fought it with everything you had. Something about the way he approached you, looked at you, was enough to hypnotize you. Imagine knowing you should fight, wanted to, and then you didn’t. If Eric hadn’t made you love him, then allowed you in on the secret precisely when he meant to, it spoke little against him. There must seriously be something wrong with you. As the story went, even Aaron’s mother and a few of her creepy cult friends had adored him until the redhead was through with his toys. Not to imply in any way Mr. Raleigh had been evil or malicious.

The gift was, as Aaron explained it, his husband was so honest and open a short time with him was a look into the most honest mirror you’d never want to catch yourself in- not if there were any ugly truths hiding beneath a lifelong facade. The guy should’ve been a lawyer, his entire ‘clan’ thought so, but the world had other plans and those were more fun to pursue.

To the point, if Eric, out of anyone, hadn’t made Daryl adore him it’d be shocking. Disappointing even. Jesus knew better because Aaron knew better. Jesus knew for sure because Eric had said so. He planted his flag, here, of all places, and it was that assurance that convinced Jesus to give Daryl a chance pretty early on despite resistance.

The Hilltop scout had made more of a connection with Maggie talking business, and then Aaron on a few runs and even some visits to a strangely sincere and domestic home for dinner and more conversation than he could usually stand in a sitting. Those Alexandrians had renewed hope for change, for a better bigger world. As shitty as it had likely seemed, that explained why he was always hesitant to show Hilltop’s complete true face, going so far as to keep the less open minded locals inside their trailers, and never pass by medical if he weren’t certain Harlan was on duty. Details, details.

Of course Aaron was getting a good eye for the minor ugly details, if not the full effect. Sometimes, momentarily shaken out of his funk, he’d comment. He’d poke fun or guess by mere small talk what calibre of human he’d just ran into. Rarely wrong, and not frightened or offended that not all of the inhabitants took more than an afternoon to play up their best behavior on his account, the widower and temporary roommate just brushed it off to give his own account of an exceptionally horrible example at humanity (most of the humans back home owed their very lives to him but he never expected the best and was happy to be surprised once or twice- ever).

“Jesus. Still with me?” Oh, fuck, yeah. Showing a guy something in the woods, calling it a surprise, meant you couldn’t space out for any reason. Not even if that was listing and rejecting the correct approach to ‘it gets worse’. Alright, after all these people had been through, worse was subjective. ‘There’s more bad news’. “Paul.”

“You remembered.”

“I’d rather, but I figure you have your reasons.” Jesus shrugs. Not really. It just stuck, and to be perfectly honest it separated the two lives he’d already had in the few years since the apocalypse. There was Paul, who never had that much facial hair until it just fucking happened one day, a year into the oddly perfect life he was able to give Elliot. Truthfully he enjoyed the new adventure as much as the agoraphobe suddenly finding himself in a world full of not-people, armed with survival knowledge learned through oddly specific paranoia well before it’d become useful. Elliot only gloated a little. Paul reminded him that the whole thing was a lucky shot, and while grateful, there were other ‘theories’ his therapist and loved ones were justifiably concerned over.

“Paul is fine, between us. I said my friends use it. That’s a short list. Jesus just stuck, I didn’t have any say over it and didn’t give a fuck at the time.”

“Negan has a lotta nice things to say about ya,” Daryl motions that they should carry on but Paul spins around in front of him in a series of moves too quick even for a keenly trained eye to make sense of. “Not accusin’. Not you anyway. We got the huggin’ out of the way, so I guess I hope some of that was for you. We ain’t gonna have to do that again, right?”

More of a demand than a question, a bit deflated but definitely Daryl’s attempt at drawing a line. “Maybe. You know, I don’t mind being invested in personal growth. Kinda suck at it for myself, but I get people and I know what they need. Problem solving is my calling in life, scavenging, fighting, helping gently remind new friends that there’s no shame in slowing down at a certain age.”

“I haven’t. And you’ll eat them words.”

“I wish. I wish for once I could be fucking wrong. Not know the answers. Just wing it. I look like I’m flying by the seat of my pants but I see exactly what’s going on and what could happen. And then, one day, one or two more, give me exactly what I asked for. That’s on my, some of it. I can’t blame myself for everything, that’d be fucking stupid. I should’ve given them better advice. I wanted to protect it, because it- it was personal. I stopped doing fucking personal for a reason. And I’m just beating myself up, having a pity party, like it changes a thing. This is why I never took charge of Hilltop, not even when I saw Gregory slipping. Not even if I could. I don’t ever want to be Rick, or Ezekiel, or Maggie.”

Daryl walks slowly now, determined to get anywhere at all. He could make a shelter if needed, he’s just so damn tired but he can feel his heart pounding. There’s a reason why he hasn’t gone to the main building yet, or why Maggie couldn’t meet up. There’s a reason why Jesus had this all set up. He’d mentioned a cabin out here, somewhere nobody would find it unless they knew where to look. Smart. What was the fucking catch? At least, why was the little imp sort of flippin’ his lid? Daryl sighs, pats his pockets for a cigarette and as he’s fumbling he hears the strike of a match.

Paul has two lit smokes between his lips, the expression on his face implies he’s questioning whether to share. Must have been a hard...fuck, few weeks? A month or more? It wouldn’t matter much, except he knows that these Saviors expect regular payments once a ‘deal’ has been made. The idea of not being around for the ‘tributes’ makes him nervous. Knowing his son had been inside that compound, just looking for evidence that his daddy was at least alright, alive.

His new friend passes a cigarette, Daryl can feel his mouth watering and mentally flips off his strange little family, anybody that dare scold his grown ass for wanting this more than real food. Je- Paul had been pushing water bottles and what looked like military rations but taste homemade. Real food and water, now a smoke. Better than usual.

Paul is visibly upset now, as if he’d been holding off for permission or getting close to this secret cabin would force him to fill in the plot holes. Daryl knows he could have missed a lot. Nothing comes to mind than what’s already the worst loss he can imagine. More deaths? Losing territory? It wouldn’t be the kids because a motherfucker would know better. Didn’t he say something about Carl up to visit Enid anyway? She wanted to train with Hilltop’s doctors. Carl thought Earl was pretty cool. That sounded right.

Whatever Rick might’ve done in a state of panic or whatever, if it kept people together and ok Rick would do it. He wouldn’t endanger the kids, he had smart as fuck people backing him up, and maybe he couldn’t bounce much off of Maggie at this very moment but he’d find a way soon enough.

Paul was never any less Jesus than at this very moment. All of them had changed since the start; Dixon wouldn’t recognize himself from the ‘good old days’ and that was good news. They’d fight, they’d win. “Just spit it out, ain’t got all day.” That should move things along.

“You have a roommate. It’s probably temporary. I just don’t know what his plans are but he’s not the type to lay low when a job needs doing. He thought he needed some time away from Alexandria. Nobody can dispute that. I still have some things to move for him, I’m just waiting on instructions. He was trying to do it himself, of course, he just couldn’t. Got the necessities, don’t think he should have to do the rest. Even if it just ends up stacked in a corner of the cabin or whatever. It’s where I go when I need to be left alone, but he doesn’t want to. Which is good, I think.”

“Who. Why.” It doesn’t take much detective work, just the little details from the conversation are specific enough. The ‘why’ is important. Why would the guy Daryl thinks it is, any guy that’d room with him, had a lot to pack and didn’t have anyone back at the Safe Zone to turn to. Hilltop was relatively new to them, enough that only a small crew had gotten close to Jesus.

Especially close enough for him to share any precious secret. Like a hideaway. Like a practical admission that he knew Saviors better than he’d suggested from the initial deal. That Negan had possibly given him a reason to see right through Daryl and understand this *feeling* he had without anything fucked up really happening at all. Jesus had not exaggerated, despite his flair for the dramatic (fake tire change, the sleeping beauty act, need a guy go on?) an ability to read people.

“Aaron is staying here for a bit.” Jesus runs his hands through his hair, stopping just beyond his temples, fists about to clench around the carefully maintained locks. It may be difficult to spit out, but it was no riddle. He was distraught and unable to hide it. There was guilt in the way he looked down and away from his companion. They both had stake in this, though Jesus clearly felt that his right to any emotional disturbance was not at the top of the list. “A drop went bad, at least by Savior standards. Sounds like a surprise to rattle Rick, anyone with the guts to stand up or screw with the payload. Negan brought his worst. A lieutenant that would do *anything* for him. Arat. The least we can hope for is that the intention was not...that. He wouldn’t fuck with them needlessly, possibly at all. Not worth dissecting all that, because in the end it didn’t stop Arat from taking an order to shoot someone with that little thought ahead. Still doesn’t fucking matter, does it. I’m sorry. I am so sorry this came down to all of you. That the world had to lose Glenn...and Eric.”

Daryl staggers. Not this again. He couldn’t even fight this, lose his cool and be some weird distraction for a while. This was all over. No goodbyes, no warning, no mistakes on their part. Just the last standing marriage at the end of the world. A good fucking marriage. A miracle in the old world, a damn near logical fallacy in these times. As attached as he was to Aaron, possibly the best half had been taken away at random. From what Jesus had explained so far the murder was extremely random.

The tracker grimaces, carries on in silence. He remembers every detail of that night. Even if he hadn’t, they would’ve reminded him. Although, the part that sticks out at the moment is unnervingly stuck in his memory, not the way Glenns shapeless bloody skull was. This had been subtler, and yeah the former was still the absolute worst thing he’d seen and felt in all his life, no doubt. The amusement, attention to detail, even the dated reference, it was all a calculated move to tease out a response. It wasn’t provoking, divisive. The short speech Negan had bothered to give Aaron, a promise if you believed everything that lunatic had to say, was just for him. Almost a courtesy, unfounded preference for the new guy, the one that seemed least connected to the rest of the group. That sick fuck could’ve just said, ‘no one will care as much if I do you’. What he’d chosen to do *instead* was to raise his weapon of choice so that it almost brushed Aaron’s neck, the side of his face.

Daryl hadn’t been in the position to see more than that, but he’d bet his friend walked away with a couple of deep scratches from the barbed wire. Worse than that, if he knew Aaron (he did) was the 5 seconds it took that freak to make a surprisingly rare and personal prediction about a possible victim. Whatever he saw, Aaron probably found himself more shaken than he should have the capacity to be with the looming threat of extremely slow and painful death.

Negan considered, carefully swinging the bat and bringing it close to the out and proud gay man who was so often misread by new acquiantances (friendly or not); Negan had declared clearly that Aaron was safe, ‘that whole Matt Shepherd business made it just too damn ugly’ and he didn’t want anyone to think he had that kind of agenda’. Something about being a friend of Dorothy(?) once in a while himself. Backwoods hick or not, Daryl had caught the reference, as did the rest of the crowd. Except maybe Carl. He’d probably asked the Raleighs later and wish he hadn’t.

Guess he was feeling one of those stupid stages of grief because the thought that Carl couldn’t run across the street for two totally different approaches to the same solution, no matter the question (or embarrassment at the answer) had put lead in his steps.

With Glenn, he was angry. Still, just so fucking angry. There was a fair amount of fear there, too, not knowing how they’d pull out of this one without the glue that had always kept them together. Daryl wished he could turn to the guy now, get some insane video game comparison to their problems, out of which grew a ridiculous plan that practically always worked. Fuck, he was going to have to remember half that shit.

Didn’t matter if he knew what the fuck silly game the little guy was yammering on about, the skills he’d picked up from playing it 600 times gave him a strategy that no one could have dreamed in the rest of their lifetimes. For a nerd who’d spent most of life in the basement, fooling around with digital adventures (or real life shit you could just go *do*) he was the most human out of all of them. Even after all the shit they’d been through, Glenn was a good guy and believed in people.

“I’m not going to be the asshole that stands out here, waiting for a sign that he’s still off working.”

“Not even if you could pass it off on me?” Jesus jokes. His mind hasn’t stopped spinning since Aaron had showed up after dark that night, making an absolute racket with that shitty busted car of his. Even loaded as heavily as he’d been able to- said he could’ve done better but he was just too damn *tired*- that thing still wouldn’t quit. It rattled and groaned and on a paved road it dug into the ground with all the shit barely hanging on underneath, like it was digging its own grave. Trying like hell to.

He remembered how confusing Aaron’s response was; the Alexandrian was more often than not gently defensive about his environmentally friendly beater (he’d been campaigning when he’d bought it) had plenty of years left. Instead of the expected response, the big guy was noticeably shaking when he responded with a laugh.

The involuntary shivering had already been there, gone unnoticed because barely anything rattles that guy. Not enough anyway. Yeah his friends new and old had seen him cry at least once, annoyingly secure in his masculinity even if the tears were joyous ones.

*How many times has anyone done that, or even seen it happen organically? Alright, Paul had once or twice, because Elliot was the most romantic hermit dressed up like some satanist in a television miniseries. He owned hooded sweatshirts two full grown men could fit comfortably in- and when he’d impulsively gathered up his new boyfriend one night and awkwardly stuffed him in (with room to spare) Paul swore it was the Coke wearing off still that made him a little weepy.

Another afternoon, a few days after the yoga instructor finally went back to work, Elliot had an art supply place deliver everything he’d need to create an adorable Powerpuff Girls action scene inside the front door to their apartment. He could afford that, and if someday they moved out he could use the same bottomless bank account to pay for a new damn door. He’d just been introduced to his man’s favorite show, a kid’s show about superpowered little girls created in a lab (not creepy at all, hilarious and fun damn it). He’d opted to pay homage to the big tattoo of “Bubbles”, Paul’s favorite of the three, by depicting her as the hero of the day.

The front door opened into the kitchen so the girls were armed with plastic silverware and super powers in his painting (there was a 50/50 chance they even had sporks in the drawers at that moment but the thought was there). He’d declared that if it in any way offended his boyfriend’s devotion to the material- well, he’d seen it now so bullshit- and call it slight payback for making any guy to fall into bed with him unwittingly lay a hand on the kindergartener on a lovely thigh. “I’m not crying.”

“Good, I went to almost 2 years of art school to pull shit like that out of my ass. I’m pretty proud of it. C’mere, sit and enjoy it while we wait for the pizza guy on his way. I still have a ton of expensive supplies to make the deposit worth it, should we move away. By that I mean, we will be bringing this door. Maybe the bedroom door as well. That took me at least 4 hours.”*

Inappropriately enough, when his new friend and scavenging companion arrived that night, Jesus couldn’t stop his mind from kicking up a whirlwind of random gorgeous memories. “Aaron…” the blond was crying, blinking back tears and staring down at Hilltop’s best like he had all the answers. For the first time, Jesus had no idea how to find what Aaron had lost. A familiar patch of orange-red framing a porcelain white face, looking deceptively delicate, was not about to emerge from the passenger seat, or pop out from behind the trees. Not this time, and not ever again.

Jesus knew that look all too well, knew that there was no answer, no resolution; like a favorite book you’ve read countless times is just missing every page after the tense chapters in the middle except one that reads: The End.

Never putting down a book before the conclusion, no matter how sad or maybe especially drole it began, was a thing the two men had in common. The resolution could always be worth it. Even if it wasn’t, even if the entire story was just awful for whatever reason, they both- separately and many years before meeting- had decided to declare the experience a battle won.

So even if life had been, well, exceptionally shitty for these past few months of an almost 3 year old doomsday event (and for Jesus the first wonderful year plus everything before that mostly, had been glorious, and then monumentally unfair) life was still about trying. They both felt that need, a compulsion, to do whatever they could. It meant they had to work at least twice as hard to keep everyone else safe and comfortable. Twice as hard practically felt like a semi-retirement, which Eric had argued was a good sign even while Jesus vocally rejected and Aaron tried his damndest not to be caught rolling his eyes. “Do not work yourself to death, Aaron...and Jesus, I’m sure it’d be very grand and cool to see, probably sexy as fuck too...you’re working together these days so I expect both of you to bring your asses back in one piece, and my baby’s too.”

Daryl had been just drunk enough to lean innocently on Eric’s shoulder, already dozing off when the gentle scolding for his traveling partners almost stirred him. The group had really gotten it’s hooks in. Jesus remembered knowing about the Fema setup there but never considering skipping out on Hilltop when Negan finally let him slip away. The pit, the smooth level roads leading right to it from several more densely populated areas...no fucking thank you.

“We didn’t...no one did a damn thing. Not really. The load was light a few little things. Honestly, they would have never known if Olivia didn’t keep such...that’s not...no, fuck it, why does she never think to keep a fake ledger? How hard is that? Stash away enough to compensate for the fucking thugs that can’t divide by half...or the number of times Rick talks back...or doesn’t...fuck it, we both know if I had a choice how many of them would be easy to trade for his- for his life. Fuck stages of grief, you know? Aren’t I supposed to be angry right about now? I wish I were. Grimes is *lucky* I just can’t cut out the part of him that turns to stone, and what’s worse, silence, every time.” Aaron rubs his eyes, stumbles a bit.

“Did Negan...he was there personally, yes?” Jesus did his best to help move the story along. They’d go to his cabin, and he’d find a way to slip Aaron a mild sedative. Then he’d get everything in, wouldn’t have to leave his friend alone, and...yeah he’d weep and rage the whole trip. He’d have his shit together by the time Aaron woke up. There, a plan made it so much easier to hear a broken heart describe the loss of that one and only real love thing, the relationship that’ll feel so natural, so right it should (must) be untouchable. Then it’s not. “I don’t know if this is the right thing to do, but if you really want to be pissed off. If that takes the edge off for now,” he knew it did. “I’ll promise you that Rick is exactly what inspired Negan to make an example out of an Alexandrian. Yes, and a little bit before but I told you that attacking Glenn was different.”

“Nobody wanted to live without him. I wouldn’t bargain with his life now if I could...Maggie is still a kid almost, and the bean will come into the world missing something no one can replace here,” Aaron taps his chest, sways again. “Imagine realizing you look like the person everyone tries to teach you about...while they look like this feels.” This time he stops, covering his mouth with a clenched fist. He doesn’t manage to muffle a choked sob, a shaky breath, opting to bite down hard enough to leave an imprint of his teeth- there’s plenty of tiny red scrapes from the quick work he’d made of packing up the most important keepsakes. “I shouldn’t have come here...Maggie doesn’t need this-”

“You aren’t bothering her or any motherfucker here, Aaron. Our people don’t know you, but our friends are here, and they loved him too ok? Maggie might understand *exactly* how this feels, but the rest of them will be trying like hell to not wonder what it’s like to be married, and happy, for that long and be the one that has to keep going. Nothing will ever hurt this bad. I’m sorry, I really am. It’ll keep hurting, someday a little different but you’ll never not love him, will you?”

“No. Never. I was nothing before him.” Some day they’d be able to joke about that again, but Aaron was exactly right from the anecdotes his husband loved to tell anyone who’d listen over a bottle of wine. “Don’t fucking argue with me either.”

“You’re my friend. I don’t lie to the people I give a shit about. And I know how it feels. That’s no comfort, of course, I’m not asking you to check your privilege with that detail, got me? I was just as lucky as you, for a long time. More so probably. I was nothing once. Then he came along and fixed me...and loved me. And if New York had gotten around to it I would have been in your exact boat. Not that the ceremony and papers is the part that matters, right? I know there were at least two weddings, and all of your neighbors ought to know the honeymoon never exactly ended.”

“Good. I want Alexandria to know there’s an empty space in that house, on the fucking sidewalk right in front of it, that they’ll never fill.”

“I won’t let them try. Can you tell me who took the order from Negan? I know hearing this is just, well, disgusting in every way but the Raleighs were specifically not to be harmed. Not ever.”

“What...how do you even know that and why? It was this tiny, mean little bitch. She’s always right on his heels until she gets the go ahead to rough somebody up. Last couple times he just asked that she hang on to whoever was pissing them off, and maybe he’d let her kill someone or at least leave a scar they’d die with. Dramatic pig. He does that all to get a rise out of Rick, who just *won’t*, while he makes the most pointless observations while Olivia tries to fill his damned order. Then, once or twice a visit he asks someone to be his wife, or tries to piss Carl off. He’s a teenage boy it’s not hard. This time...we were outside waiting for some idiot to dig through the same shit in every building. They decide that, hey, no, we don’t have it and he just shrugs. Doesn’t look anywhere in particular. Just says, ‘Arat, shoot someone’. She did.”

“How would you feel if you knew that she might not live to learn from that mistake?” Jesus looks serious, but Aaron doesn’t see quite how Arat would find herself on his bad side. She’d performed exactly as ordered. Negan was still pissed but they’d taken what Alexandria could give, what they didn’t need, and gotten some sick thrill out of reinforcing the original warning. If his neighbors knew how good things were with the Raleighs, it made just as much sense as his last choice.

“It wasn’t any different than Glenn. An *example*.”

“He checked in on us, you know, after that first night. Negan came personally. Took the time to ask me if what he’d said to you sounded anything like a threat.” They’re getting into the cabin, Aaron sinking down into a plushy chair while Jesus lights the fireplace. It wasn’t really necessary, but it might help in some small way. “There was no point in telling you then, and I strongly suspect it’s more of an obsession with Rick than anyone has guessed. That doesn’t matter. He wanted to know if the reference was old and stale enough so that it would sound like the message he intended to pass on to you.”

“Which was?”

“Look, I’m going to explain this to you because someone tried to lock your rainbow in the closet for 20 years and all...but if you do one thing for me, no questions, nothing, I’ll fill you in on a lot of shit that could really albeit unfairly- change my standing around here. Deal?”

“Sure...you staying here tonight?” Jesus nods, sighs, fishing a small unmarked bottle out of a drawer. He shakes a few pills into his palm and grabs a water bottle along the way. He sits next to his friend, hugs him tightly and hops to his feet.

“Eat these.”

“Don’t need the water bottle.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard all that too. However, you lose fluids crying. Let me take care of you. You’re not allowed to do that today. This isn’t a warning. It just is what it is. I will be here, as your friend and his, until you’re through this part.”

“Now that I’ll be some kind of sedated soon, I guess you can finish explaining why Matt Shepherd and a deft caress from a bat wrapped in razor wire was meant to be a comfort.” Aaron sighs. “The sarcasm just now was way stronger than intended.”

“I get it. You thought, just like your family and neighbors, and even the ASZ’s survivors, this is a homophobe. His language is aggressive, the bat is a lady, he has half a dozen wives...but think about it. At least with Rick. Lately. Negan is proudly bisexual, and nobody can find that cringe worthy because even Hitler loved, and had strong spiritual beliefs, and wrote something you must admit was intelligently presented despite the content. Don’t make the bad guys monsters, ever. It just fucking fucks you up more. So there you have it. He’s very open, and no he didn’t decided to give it a whirl after 75% of us were wiped out. I do not know how personal it was in your case. Just that he was completely serious, enough to be concerned about how he constructed the comment later on. Think of it as a very unpleasant coded message. He wanted you to know, just you, that at least one person in that circle had a guaranteed return trip home. He’s still a fucker. Don’t get me wrong. But the parts of him that are decent can often be more thoughtful than our closest allies. If you like the taste of that...call it an agenda by way of a lecherous bisexual villain.”

“What am I, a network TV exec?” Ah, jokes. Jokes were good. The blond often made jokes when his own life was threatened. Baby steps, carefully selected companionship (if he wanted any at all- Jesus had not), and as many keepsakes in the little home away from home as they could pack in.