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Cross Your Fingers

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"You ever think about it? Settling down?"

"You think shit's settled?"


 

He hadn't thought about it, really, not when Abraham had first asked. Outside of wondering: is this a good place for Carl and Lil Asskicker, can Rick get some peace of mind, can Carol take a breather? Alexandria was the place for all of that, its walls going through test after test and still holding, its people still roaming livelier than the dead on the other side would suggest. This was the place he imagined Maggie and Glenn had been envisioning when the idea for a baby first crept into their heads, and they had that now.

But there were still supply runs to make, still critters to hunt, still people to look after and look for... He was outside the walls more than anyone else, with the exception of maybe Aaron, and when he was inside he never asked himself "can I settle here?" He'd stopped that shit after the prison turned out to be just another pit-stop. But here, now, after everything... "You ever think about it? Settling down?" was the one question he couldn't stop thinking about.


 

Everything had went balls up the second Negan stepped out of the RV, all calm swagger and glinting teeth in the moonlight. Yeah, he'd gotten shot by Dwight and taken alongside Glenn, Michonne, and Rosita, but that would have been okay in the grand scheme of things. They would have escaped eventually, as long as Rick and Maggie and Carol and everyone else he cared for was still alright. But Daryl should have learned by now… nothing would ever be still alright. 

He'd gotten all of them, lined them up on their knees for an impromptu execution. He toyed with them first, of course, working his way inside Rick's head, basking in the heavy blanket of fear slowly smothering all of them. And Daryl had never seen Rick so scared; not at the farm or the prison or in that freight car with a bunch of cannibals surrounding them, not even with the Claimers or the Wolves or at the compound with what would turn out to be just a few of those piece of shit Saviors that wouldn’t even dent the army they had around them now. Nah, Rick was looking at Negan like another one of his world's was about to end. Because it was.

Carl and Michonne were in the line, at opposite ends, two of the three people that made Rick's heart softer, made him love harder and dream bigger; Glenn, who'd been with them both since practically the beginning, who had saved Rick's life and accepted Daryl again and again when he hadn’t deserved it; Maggie, the hope and head and the only remaining reminder of what Hershel stood for and what he meant to all of them, the things she could do if she only stayed having that chance. Daryl was in the line, too, and Rick's voice calling him his brother flashed through his muddled brain, the trust and compassion he'd been shown by a man he'd probably be running from if the world hadn't let the dead start walking. He could see all of the rest without looking: Abraham, Rosita, Eugene, Sasha, Aaron... They'd all been through so fucking much together, so fucking much apart, they didn't deserve an end like this. He could only thank God and Jesus -- but not the hippie Hilltop prick -- that Carol wasn't here, that she didn't have to see this or be on the chopping block along with everyone she cared for. He hoped she was safe, that she'd stay safe once whoever was left got back, if they ever did.

Eenie. Meenie. Miney. Moe.

If the bat in his face was an image he'd never forget, the first hit and crack would be seared into his brain for however long he remained alive.

"You ever think about  it?  Settling down?"

Daryl could see through his fuzzy, tear-blocked eyes that Sasha had, that she’d thought long and hard, maybe even dared to dream about it. Even after Bob and Tyreese, Abraham had given her a new hope for the future... And Negan had just snuffed it out with a baseball bat and a barbed wire strand. He knew what memory popped up when he thought of Beth, of Dale and Andrea and Lori and Tyreese, of Sophia and Merle, fuckin’ Merle... He knew what memory would pop up when he thought of Abraham from here on out, and Daryl wondered what Sasha would see when she closed her eyes, when his name passed through her thoughts and all she had left to look at were the handful of things he'd left behind. What would she remember? What would Rosita? What would Eugene and Glenn and Maggie?

Maybe it didn't even matter anymore.

“Oh! Look at that. Takin’ like a champ!”

“Suck… my… nuts

The screams were deafening and he couldn't make out who they belonged to; Maggie out of grief, Glenn out of fear, Rick trying to plead and beg even though he knew it was too late. He could see Rosita crumple into herself, Eugene following after like he was connected to her by a string, and Sasha's mouth was wide open but he knew no sound would squeeze its way out. She was alone again, just like that. It was a shitty thought in a shitty time, but Daryl didn't know if she would make it now. Shit, he didn't even know if he would.

If this is the next world, I hope it’s good to you guys.

No, he thinks to himself, it isn’t.


 

He's being pulled up by the arm again before he knows it, by that spineless son of a bitch Dwight. He wants to bite the bastard’s ear off, make another chain with his dead in the center, cut out his eye for Denise. An eye for an eye; he wonders if Jesus would like the sound of that. He can’t bring himself to care.

Daryl’s gaze stays glued to the bloodied, smashed corpse of Abraham, then strays to the wide-eyed terror of Rick. This might be the only goodbye they’ll get, staring at each other like animals in opposite cages. It’s better than some, he knows.

"Don't -- you don't need him -- he's hurt--"

Stop this!

His crossbow, pointed at his back, jabs bruising into his skin, forcing him into the empty space of the van once more. Negan says something to Rick -- to everyone -- but Daryl can't make it out. Maggie’s sobs is the last thing he hears. And when his eyes slip closed, he sees red.


 

Daryl thinks he'll probably die. He’s going to die eventually, everyone is, but this moment seems promising. He feels like a pig at slaughter, boxed up and squealing until someone takes mercy on his bastard soul and ends it all. He can't keep his eyes open and his teeth might even be chattering, and he's gonna die in the back of a truck, all alone, with the faces of all the people he’s failed flashing behind his eyelids.

He thought they could do this. Rick had said they could, and Daryl believed it. He believed it more than he'd believed in anything before, and that's what got them here. His bravado bolstering the rest, giving Abraham reason to believe they could take down an army when the only thing he needed to believe in was a future for him and Sasha. Daryl had told that hippie prick they'd take Negan out and he hadn't done a damn thing to dissuade him otherwise, just let Rick make the call, let him lead his family into the snare.

But no, this wasn't his fault. Daryl couldn't blame him, not now, no matter how much he wanted to. It wasn't that asshole's fault that Daryl had run off on his own for some damn revenge mission that wouldn't make him feel better anyway, that he got Glenn and Michonne and Rosita tangled up in it even deeper. This was on him and it always would be. Just like Beth, just like Denise, just like...


 

Dragged out, falling to his knees, searing pain lighting up his left side like a pin cushion. Voices are garbled, vision foggy. He can't track his own movements.

There's a bright light and more pain. Laughter, but not close. Murmuring... His body alights with fire and a sudden strange fear of death takes hold, makes him kick and scream; both are only an attempt. He shakes instead, a pathetic whimper probably giving whoever's touching him a deep satisfaction. He can't go down that hole, can't think about the other times he's whined and cried, can't think about why or who made him. 

He steels himself and opens his eyes, the haze and brightness of the room blinding him. He can barely make out the man hunched over him, scissors in hand. The guy catches his eye for only a moment and then tucks his head back down, but Daryl could see the burns there, like the ones shithead Dwight had on his own face. Briefly, he wonders if he would be marked, too. One more scar to add to the list. 

When his eyes slip shut again, they stay that was for a long time.


 

Daryl had once told Rick that if things had been different, he would have wound up in jail just like the men they found when they'd first entered the prison. He would have been shackled, thrown away for some dumb shit Merle might have talked him into doing, and no one would have cared. Not his momma’s tortured soul, not Merle, not Rick, and not even Carol. He would have been like Oscar and Axel, and ended up worm food or a dead man walking. 

He probably always was.


 

They'd been living through hell on earth for over a year, but Sanctuary was the real Devil's lair.

People kneeled to Negan, gave up their wives and girls if he so much as talked sweet to them. They did what he said and if anyone questioned, they got hauled off to face whatever punishment was deemed worthy. Negan made an effort to seem fair, doling out points whenever it struck his fancy, and taking away just as many for reasons less clear. Daryl, the guest that he was, didn't have to work for points, didn't have to follow the flow of rules no one could forget. No, instead he got a dank, dark little cell and a jumpsuit that fell of his reddened shoulder and rode up his ass, swishing against his ankles as irritatingly as chains around his limbs. But if that weren’t bad enough, watching Dwight roam around all free and fine certainly was. He flounced around in Daryl's vest, toted Daryl's crossbow, and had the nerve to look away whenever Daryl tried to set the other half of his face on fire with his glare alone. The fucking coward. Daryl would beat his ass with his bare hands, or he would die trying.

And that was the thing; he was going to die here, in a shitty cell at Sanctuary, tormented by the two people left alive he hated most right now. It had been a fearful thought before, but it was starting to look more and more like a damn premonition.


 

They threw him in the truck again, with his grimy jumpsuit and a shiny new black eye for his troubles. It'd been several days since the clearing now; he hadn't been keeping a steady count, but whenever the concrete cell dropped in temperature, he knew another long night was ahead. Which meant the Saviors and Negan himself were going on a special field trip to Alexandria. Daryl didn't want to know what he would see when he got there, or what he wouldn't see.

The sunlight made his eyes water when his cage opened and he was yanked out once more. The light murmurings of Rick, who was kneeling and trying to talk sense into Negan, faded when his wide eyes landed on Daryl. "Thank God," he swore he heard Maggie whisper, but the momentary relief was swept up with the crawl of ice through his veins when he saw Glenn, as he stood protectively beside his wife.

His face. Half of it was badly burnt, just like Dwight's. Skin pinched and inflamed, wrinkled. It made the meager contents of Daryl's stomach want to spew from his throat. What lesson had Negan tried to teach him? What had he been punished for? Glenn was stubborn and squirrelly... Daryl didn't want to know what he’d done to piss Negan off, he just hoped the kid kept his damn head down or else he'd lose his life.

"Well, I must thank you for such a warm welcome," Negan says boisterously, a smirk firmly in place as if the men scattered around Alexandria weren't pointing guns and bats at anyone who dared to do otherwise. "You can get up now, all of you. In fact, why don't you come on over here, Rick. And bring that kid of yours."

Daryl could see Rick's jaw clench. When their eyes met in the afternoon light, Daryl willed Rick not to pull any dumb shit. Not right now. Don't give the bastard the satisfaction.

It only took him a hesitant moment to stand and grab Carl gently, leading both of their unwilling bodies towards Negan. He cocked his head, grin spreading into something far too amused when Rick flinched at the swing of his bat.

"Hold her, won't you? An honor among friends. And we are friends, aren't we, Rick?"

He held the barbed wire bat -- Lucille, he’d called it -- out to Rick, waiting with patience and a feral gleam in his dark eyes. Daryl kept his vision on Rick, watched his brother reach out and grasp the weapon that could end any one of them without a moment's notice. Negan hummed when the bat left his grip, chuckling when Rick held it to his side.

"She doesn't like it that way, Rick. On your shoulder she goes. I don't think any of us wanna see what happens if you can't handle my gal the right way."

Daryl almost snorted. He was dammed certain Negan was waiting for any sort of reason to teach someone new a lesson. He hears that asshole Jesus in his head, telling them how Negan showed up and killed a 16 year old kid for no reason other than to show his dominance, like he was pissing on a hydrant instead of taking someone's life.

They should have taken it more seriously. They should have --

You thought you were safe, I get it. But the word is out. You are not safe, not even close. In fact, you are pegged...

Yeah, they all were now. And there was no escape in sight.

Daryl looks down to his feet, scraggly hair covering his bruised face, and Rick carefully perches the weapon atop his shoulder.


 

They didn't let him stay at Alexandria. He's not as surprised as some of the people he’d left behind, but he can’t pretend he isn’t disappointed, isn’t scared. 

Negan wanted more than half of what they’d gathered, a trade for Daryl, but they barely had enough after the taking as it was and Rick couldn't spare more. He had so many people to still look after, even if some of them no longer revered his word. He couldn't put them in jeopardy again, not even for Daryl. The broken gaze Rick had set on him sent a wave of emotion rolling through his chest.

He could hear Maggie start to cry when they loaded him back into the truck, shackles clanging against his cage. Her emotions were fucked six ways from Sunday and he hoped that meant the baby was the driving force behind it, that there would still be a baby. He didn't even get the chance to ask.

And Daryl wonders what Carol would do, if she were here. If he would be able to find strength in her steely, knowing gaze. If she would dare to hug him, whisper in his ear that they’d get through this like they have everything else. Wherever she was, he hoped it was far away from this shit-show and that she was happy. 

Maybe that was foolish, but he had nothing else to cling to.


 

The beatings didn't happen routinely, but they were too often to be some kind of real punishment. He never had the time or the luxury to do anything dumb, so the fists and boots banging against him from Simon and his little sewing-circle weren't so much a 'precaution’ as they were something done for pure amusement. It was reflexive to fight back, which made things worse, but hearing one of those sons a bitches yell out in pain was enough to keep his spirit going through the nights.

And there were a lot of them. NightsDaryl thought about the time he'd wondered into the woods as a kid and gotten lost for over a week. No one had known he was gone, no one had cared. He’d found his own way home, made himself a sandwich while his dad snored drunkenly in front of their broken set of rabbit ears. But most importantly, no one had even come looking. No one had come to save him. 

And no one was going to save him now. That's just the way it was. He didn't blame anyone for it, didn't want his family getting fucked up further just to try and rescue his dumb ass. But the pain of the thought was worse than all the throbbing cuts and bruises his body was growing more acquainted with.

He fell asleep against the concrete floor with blood caked to his nose, lips, and hands, and a bucket full of Simon's piss in the corner.

 

Daryl rarely dreamed of much before the world went further down the shitter. Asleep or awake, his aspirations didn't stray beyond wanting something in the here and now: a smoke, a drink, a night's rest that didn't involve listening to Merle bellow his way through various sordid activities, some far worse than others. When he wanted to hunt or track, he picked up his bow and knife and got his ass into the woods. When he wanted a quick buck, he'd go down to the shop that one of Merle's buddies owned and got his skin stained with grease. He didn't make plans for the future, didn't go grocery shopping on a Wednesday or laundering on a Saturday like he imagined Rick and Carol probably had.

He had no aspirations, no curious thoughts for his mind to spin deep in the night while he slept with an ear out and an eye open way before worries of the dead breaking down the door had any place inside his brain. Daryl didn't dream, not even now, but he did have nightmares. And those... Well, those were some other beast entirely.

It's real, a damn dream come true in the worst possible way. It's not only Abraham in his head; no, that's the start. He sees Glenn get the bat, hears Maggie screaming and crying before she gets it, too. Rosita, frozen to the world, shifting into a puddle of red against the dirt; Sasha, lying down, dead before the first strike; Aaron, his eyes closed and his hands out like he's praying to the sky, only one word on his lips when the crack strikes his forehead; Eugene, his whimpers ground into dust. He hears Rick sobbing when Michonne comes next, hears him screaming when it's Carl. He hears nothing when it's him. 

There are so many faces to meet in the dark, so many miserable reunions. Sasha and Tyreese, the people they were with at the prison, that man and his wife and boy; Beth and Maggie and Hershel and Glenn, with Otis and Patricia and Jimmy and Maggie's moms, her brother, and shadowy figures that must be Glenn's family, the ones he never talks about, as if saying their names would make the memories reality; Michonne with whoever she left behind, the baby he never heard she had but knew she did, Lori and Carl, Andrea with Amy and Dale and Jim, T-dog and Jacqui and that bullshit doctor who opted out. Shane. Sophia...so scared and alone, neck torn open and eyes flickering back to life. Denise, staring dead-eyed, the name of her brother clutched in her hand.

His mom, burned to a crisp, cigarette stuck between her bony fingers. His father, face green and eyes red, belt at the ready and breath like whiskey fire. And then there was Merle.

His face is as he remembers, not bloodied with guts and caved in by Daryl's knife. His sneer is present, but the shine in his eyes is not mischievous or hateful, not even solemn.

"Well, baby brother. You fucked up good now, didn't ya? You an’ ol’ Officer Friendly." His chuckle is as deep as the grave Daryl had lowered him into. "But don't you worry, Darlyna. It ain't your time yet, ain't ever."

The darkness shifts, beams of light cutting through, boxing out the ones he's lost, the ones he might still lose, until only Merle stands. His big brother.

And through the light, a shape emerges. A person. Slight, lean. Covered head to toe even in the southern heat. The figure is staring at him with piercing eyes, a faded blue light glowing in his sockets. Long hair blown in the wind, head covered with a woolen hat, body wrapped up in a dusty trench coat. His beard is hidden behind a do-rag, knives adorning his belt. He stands behind Merle, casting a warm shadow over the empty space as his brother speaks again, voice echoing.

"Now you wake up, ya hear? Quit being a pussy, boy. I raised you better than this! Rise and shine! Wake up."

Daryl.

Daryl?

“Daryl, wake up!”

Jesus is staring down at him, big eyes bluer than the fucking sky above. His head is bent so far down that strands of hair tickle Daryl’s face, curtains of brown hiding him from the world’s evil eye. His gaze is liquid comfort, but the creases on his face show a heavy weight.

Daryl had never been religious. He’d always done what his momma told him -- never sin on a Sunday, say the Lord’s prayer before the Christmas ham, keep your sweet heart good -- but he’d stopped hearing those words once she started crying harder and sleeping longer. And once she was gone, he’d had no reason to believe she knew what the hell she was talking about. It only got worse when Merle left him and the beatings shifted to his own lanky body, and Daryl came to find there was nothing bigger in the world. No matter what Hershel or Maggie thought, or even Merle in the end, there was no divine intervention, and certainly not for Daryl Dixon.

But there he was, being stared at by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost all in one, and he had no clue what to think anymore. Only that… well, JC looked a lot like that hippie prick from Hilltop. Guess he had reason to go around calling himself --

“Jesus?”

The concern in and around those big eyes softens, and a gloved hand comes up to yank the black cloth from his face. The two of them sway, jostling over some kind of bump. Were they traveling?

“Shit,” he spits out. His mouth feels like it’s full of cotton, tastes like he’s been sucking on a penny. “I ain’t dead?”

“No,” Jesus -- that little shit -- breathes. He drops back away from Daryl, pressing himself against something that looks like a seat. They jerk again. “But to be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure when I carried you out.”

“Carried?” he growls. “Bullshit.” The fire behind his curse is lost to the throbbing of his head. His eyelids slam closed.

“You’re heavier than you look, I’ll give you that. Sorry about your head.”

Daryl opens one eye a crack and lets it linger on the man before him. That serene expression is too much for him and he scowls, deciding against asking what the asshole had done to him. Probably nothing worse then what he’d gone through already.

“What the hell happened?”

Hippie Prick puts his hand up and turns to face the front of the stripped-out truck they were bouncing around in.

“We should stop here and walk the rest of the way. They might know the vehicle and the tire tracks are too noticeable.”

Daryl tries to sit up and gets a wide-eyed look from Hippie Prick once more.

“Who’s the shitty driver?” he grits out.

To answer his question, the woman in front turns halfway around, showing her dirtied face.

Tara.

“Hi,” she says weakly, a tired smile tugging at her lips. It doesn’t quite make it anywhere else. “Glad you’re not dead.”

His throat dries up, seeing her face… thinking about Denise. Did she know? He should have been the one to tell her, he should --

"Yeah. You, too.”

She steers the car into a wooded area, jostling almost as badly as Hippie Prick and himself in the back. He winces.

“To answer your question,” Prick begins again, “a hell of a lot.”

Daryl snorts at that, regretting it when a spot above his left eye throbs with pain.

“No shit.”

“I got together with some of your friends, and with Dwight’s help--”

His ears perk and burn at the sound of that name. “The hell you say?”

“-- we managed a distraction. Rick, Michonne, and Rosita hit the walls. I followed, slipped in and grabbed you with Dwight. I got you far enough away for Tara to pick us up. Look, I’ll explain more later, but we’re sitting ducks right now and I’m sure you know, the Saviors are pretty fond of hunting.”

Daryl tries to sit himself up once more and pain shoots through his leg. Gritting his teeth, he takes a breath through his nose.

Rick, Michonne, and Rosita… putting themselves at risk, knocking on Negan’s door with guns and knives, trying to get Daryl back. Tara, too. And Hell, even Jesus. He couldn’t deny that.

Someone had come looking for him. Someone had saved him. What the hell kind of next world was this?

Daryl looks at the little shit hovering in front of him, the concern etched around his eyes making a return. Daryl can’t help but glare.

“Who’s dumb idea’s this anyway?” he sniffles. “I coulda done it. Didn’t need no one puttin’ themselves out for me. Just needed more time, is all.” That was a bold-faced lie and he knew it; Tara knew it too, and so did Jesus. And staring at the man in question, Daryl didn’t quite know what to make of him.

He’d lifted Rick’s keys, lied to their faces, tricked them, drove off with their truck-full of supplies. He’d fought, ninja’d his way on top of the damn moving vehicle, and then he’d maybe helped Daryl by shooting that walker behind him. Only because he’d stolen Daryl’s gun, though. The idiot only carried knives and did some spin-kick shit that was reckless and unnecessary where walkers were concerned.

He’d snuck out of his room, took a stroll around Alexandria like he owned the place, nosed around and then broke into Rick’s house so they could talk. But… he’d shown them his home base, tried to help deescalate the fights, wanted to start a trading deal, and even came along to give his help with the Negan ordeal at the satellite station. And now, he’d risked his ass to save Daryl’s when they knew shit-all about each other and meant even less.

He didn’t know what the hell this guy was thinking.

“You got a death wish or somethin’?”

Hippie Prick smiles wryly, but the tense expression doesn’t cease.

“If we stay here any longer, then yeah, I’d say we all do. Now come on. Tara, can you help me?”

Daryl watches in confusion as Tara hops out of the truck and rushes around to open the dented doors, reaching for Daryl’s shoulders as Jesus reaches for his legs. He kicks one out in response, his foot connecting with Jesus’s arm.

“Keep your damn hands to yourself, sunshine! I can walk just fine!”

Eyebrows raise at his claims.

“With a hole in your leg?”

He looks down, only now noticing the blood on the black leather of Asshole’s gloves, the same blood that’s stained the leg of his jumpsuit. When he looks down further, he sees a rag wrapped snugly around his thigh. Interestingly, his shackles are gone.

But he’d been shot… again. And Daryl was getting damned tired of being target practice for those assholes.

“Daryl,” Tara hisses near his ear, voiced hushed and paranoid. She wants out of this as badly as he does.

Daryl moves his arms up and allows Tara to wrap hers around his chest. Jesus raises a questioning brow at him and when Daryl jerks his head as a show of compliance, his legs get picked up and cradled. Daryl tries not to struggle on instinct when the two force him out of the vehicle, tensing momentarily when he feels like Hippie Prick might drop his legs. But Jesus hops out of the truck with ease, landing with his knees bent and keeping Daryl’s from jostling too much when he rises back to his full height.

It’s when Jesus pries Daryl’s legs apart and slots himself up between Daryl’s thighs that he starts to protest on instinct.

“Hold up--”

He turns his back before Daryl can get any other argument out, pressing himself even closer into the V of Daryl’s legs and then gripping behind his knees to prop him up further.

“Where’d you park?” Jesus asks Tara.

Daryl tilts his head back enough to peer up at Tara, who looks troubled in her momentary distraction. It takes her expression a moment to clear, and then her mind a moment more before she answers.

“Uh… maybe a mile and a half? East.”

Jesus nods and starts the trek forward, slow at first, and then faster once he’s sure Tara can keep up. Daryl wants to know what has Tara so distracted, but doesn’t dare ask in case it’s about Denise. He can’t face that yet, not out in the open with Saviors breathing down their necks.

He doesn’t like being carried and he sure as hell doesn’t like being vulnerable, but the pain is starting to catch up with him now that he’s awake and that keeps him silent enough through the journey to whatever getaway car Tara has parked between the trees.


 

When they’re settled in the car -- Daryl laid out on the backseat with a blanket draped over him, Tara at the wheel and Jesus in the passenger seat, switching between looking out the window and twisting to look down at Daryl -- it starts to hit him that, even if they get knocked off the road and shot up or torn apart, he’ll at least know that he’d been rescued. That his people, and a damn stranger who calls himself Jesus, had cared enough to risk their asses for him.

His foot taps the passenger seat none-too-gently, causing Hippie Prick to turn once more and regard him with a questioning furrow of his brows. Daryl licks his sore, cut lips.

“Thanks… both a you.”

“It’s no problem,” Tara replies, trying her best to sound cheery. He appreciates the effort, but the words that stick inside his mind are the ones that come from Jesus.

“Of course,” he says to Daryl, as if they would never have thought of doing anything less than stealing him away from Negan and bringing him home.

Of course.


 

Daryl doesn’t let Jesus and Tara carry him once the gates of Hilltop open. He staggers out of the car, face sour and bruised, and allows Tara to lend her shoulder to his arm as he hobbles to the Doc’s room. Jesus is, at first, not far behind, but even Daryl hears the call of Gregory and isn’t surprised when Hippie Prick vanishes to convene with the crusty old man they call their leader.

All is fine, though; he doesn’t need another voice telling him all the different crap he should and shouldn’t do in order to heal up properly.

“First thing’s first: I don’t need a test to tell me you’ve lost a lot of blood.”

“Yeah. Got shot not too long ago. Didn’t get patched up for a while after.”

“And again today,” Doctor Carson reminds him, expression pinched and tone disapproving.

“It ain’t by choice,” Daryl argues. Doctor Carson sighs.

“You’re lucky… Daryl, right? Your injuries aren’t as bad as they could be. Whoever patched up your shoulder did a pretty good job. It doesn’t look like it’s been dressed as often as it should be, however. And as for this one--” Carson taps Daryl’s thigh, making him tense, “-- your femur isn’t fractured. It doesn’t look like there are any bullet fragments, but I could try and take a deeper look--”

“You’ll make it worse. I’m fine.

“It’s true, but fragments can cause lead poisoning. You might even have some in your shoulder, I doubt whoever checked you out at Sanctuary went above and beyond. But it’s up to you. I’ll clean it for you, get it bandaged up, and I’ll redress the one on your shoulder. But after that, we’ll have to talk about possible symptoms of anemia.”

Daryl twitches on the table, straining to see Carson as he begins to clean the wound. Daryl grinds his teeth, but keeps his eyes on the reddening cloth instead of on Tara as she stares idly into space on a cot opposite him. “Do you know your blood type? Just in case we need a transfusion.”

“Umm…” He has to think back to the time he’d ended up in the hospital after Merle crashed their truck. His dumbass brother needed a transfusion then, but Merle was an O and Daryl… “B?”

“Positive?” Carson asks, cutting the leg of the jumpsuit further to check the bruising around the wound.

“Yeah.”

“I’m O positive,” Tara says, proving she hadn’t been completely lost within her thoughts. When Daryl looks up, she looks away, toying at the frayed edge of her pullover. “My sister, um, she used to do blood drives, sometimes. Plus, I thought it was important to know in case I ever actually ended up on the force. Extra prepared for the line of fire, right?”

“S’that what you really wanted to be? A cop?”

“Well… I dunno. I guess for a while. You know, thinking about what I used to want compared to what I want now is actually pretty pointless.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s really dumb.”

“Yeah,” Daryl says again. It makes Tara stare at him with wide, curious eyes. And then she laughs. The sound is real, loud and stuttering. Daryl can’t recall if he’s ever heard her sound like this before.

“The fact that you never sugar-coat things might put some people off, but it’s probably what I like about you most. You don’t bullshit. You say it like it is because that’s the way it is. And you know what, I--”

“She’s gone,” Daryl blurts, interrupting Tara’s amusement. Her head tilts in confusion. He doesn’t know what possesses him to do it, but he can’t stop now. “Denise. She’s…”

“Daryl?”

“We-- we went out lookin’ for stuff she wanted. And we were headin’ back. She got all fired up ‘cause we thought she did somethin’ stupid, but--” His breaths come fast from his nose and he’s not aware of Carson anymore, if he’s even still kneeling by the cot or if he’d left the room entirely. And Daryl can’t look at Tara’s face, look at the heartbreak cracking over her features, without his voice cracking, too. “It wasn’t stupid. She was right. And it was my fault.”

“Don’t--”

“It was my bow. He shot her ‘cause of me--”

“Don’t!” Her voice is strained and heavy. It cuts to his core. “Please… just don’t.”

He could tell her that Denise was talking about not wanting to be afraid, tell Tara that Denise loved her. He could say they’ll get the fucker who did it, that he’d already been trying, that he’ll make it as right as he can. He could say I’m sorry.

He says none of it.

“You saved my ass back there. For what? Now you gotta go back and pretend you don’t wish you didn’t.”

“Are you serious?” The tears are evident in her voice even before he’s catches sight of her face. “Look me in the eye right now and tell me you killed Denise. Can you do that, Daryl? No, because you didn’t! And I helped save your ass back there because you would have done the same for any of us! Because you care so damn much that you can’t even hide it anymore!” Tara slides off the table and slips past Daryl, hesitating at the door. “I don’t need you blaming yourself for this, what I need is your help. Especially after being out there, after -- I need shoulder to cry on, or I dunno-- just not a fucking pile of self-loathing horseshit, okay? But right now… I-- I need to go.”

He swallows hard when the door rattles the frame.

Daryl keeps his gaze down at his hands, tracing the inked star and the round burns with just his vision, and he can see the doctor step from behind a curtain on the other side of the room through his peripheral.

Daryl doesn’t move when Carson clears his throat, stepping closer. When he hesitates to wrap the wound, unsure of unwilling to ask Daryl to finally take the jumpsuit off, Daryl leans forward and rips the fabric from his leg in one angry pull. Neither of them speak, not until Carson elevates Daryl’s leg with pillows from the other cots.

“Don’t move, alright? You need the elevation. Now, is there anyone you’re comfortable with? You’ll probably want to get cleaned up, so a sponge bath--”

“Hell nah!” Daryl snarls, his turbulent emotions spiraling down into irritable anger. “I ain’t a damn baby! I can wash myself and I’ll do it when I damn well please.”

“Which would probably be never, if you had your say?”

The voice from the doorway startles him, furthering his irritation when he sees Jesus leaning against the wall. He hadn’t even heard the door open or close. He shouldn’t be surprised.

“You got somethin’ you wanna say to me?”

Jesus tilts his head and Daryl can see the pinch between his brows, as if trying hard to solve a problem.

“Just that Gregory would like you to clean up as soon as possible.”

“What, he afraid to come tell me that himself?”

Daryl clenches his fist when the prick standing before him smiles, amusement catching his features like the slivers of sunlight from the drawn blinds.

“Probably,” Jesus answers. There’s a hint of mirth in his tone. “I figured he’d be the last face you’d want to see right now anyway.”

“Yours’s the last face I wanna see!” It’s a bit petulant, he can admit to himself, but he wants everyone to leave him the hell alone. In fact, he wants to hobble right through the gates and walk his crippled ass back to Alexandria. The only thing stopping him is the prospect of what Negan might do if he finds his prisoner behind Rick’s walls.

“Alright, look--” the doctor begins, but Jesus raises a hand, palm out, gloved fingers splayed.

“It’s okay, Harlan.” There’s a sigh, although not one of defeat. “He’s just a little prickly, which is understandable given everything he’s been through.” Switching his attention back to Daryl, Jesus drops his arm and gives him a once over. “I take it you’ll live?”

It’s not a real question, just a probe for Daryl to start talking. He doesn’t say a word.

“He’s lost a lot of blood from both wounds, but nothing seems to be infected yet. He’ll need antibiotics and lots of rest, some physical therapy when he feels up to it,” Carson rattles off, scampering off towards his cabinets to rifle through them. “We’ll need to watch for signs of anemia, but he seems alright on first inspection. I’ll sew him up now and then take a look at his shoulder.”

“Need any help?” Jesus offers. Daryl glares.

“I could use Alex--”

“He hasn’t returned yet,” Hippie Prick says softly. His expression is oddly schooled. Daryl squints in suspicion. But Doctor Carson doesn’t seem to notice or maybe he just doesn’t care.

“Alright, wash your hands and bring me the sutures. We’ll need to stitch him up after I give it a clean.”

Daryl watches Jesus like a vulture, keeping his narrowed eyes trained on the slender man as he pulls off his hat, gloves, and coat. His shirt sleeves are baggy and bunched up at the elbows, his dark vest belted, adorned with knives. The cargo pockets of his pants are bulged, its contents a secret. Daryl wonders if he keeps fire crackers on him at all times.

He tries to focus downward, at the doctor’s hands as they delicately press cloth around the wound. The bruising makes every touch and twitch tender, but he bites his tongue and doesn’t make noise. However, his attention continuously strays to the man hovering behind Carson. Jesus. He’s watching curiously at what the Doc is doing to Daryl’s leg, but more often than not he’s watching curiously Daryl himself. It’s unnerving to have such attentive, clear eyes locked on him silently, trying to read and understand. Daryl shies away, uncomfortable with the attention.

He just wants this whole ordeal to be done and over with.


 

Being stuck at Hilltop is as easy as being stuck at Alexandria. Which is to say, it isn’t.

Daryl feels like more of an outsider here, with all the people roaming around, smiling and doing nothing but farming and carrying on like their little bubble won’t ever pop. Being on the outside is nothing new to Daryl, he’s lived that way his whole life, but at least at Alexandria he had his family. He could look at Rick and be put at ease by the man’s confidence. He could sit down with Carol and enjoy a quiet smoke. Here? Well, he has Tara -- had, she never came around after he’d fucked up telling her about Denise.

Not to mention, he has the pest he still can’t shake off. Jesus.

The Hippie Prick had come around at the same time for the past three days that Daryl had been held up in bed. He’d bring food, news of Hilltop’s on-goings (as if Daryl cared), or random and oddly specific accounts of his past scouting missions. Daryl had to give it to the guy; he never mentioned the sunken supply truck they knew both groups could use now more than ever.

So the worst part wasn’t Hilltop itself. It wasn’t even Gregory, who Daryl could see through the window, watching with shame for the old goat as he strutted around the community, flirting with women and proving he didn’t know shit about shit.

He’s not the leader I would have chosen, but he helped make this place what it is. And the people like him.

Daryl didn’t know who was more full of it: Jesus or Gregory.

But that didn’t matter much to him, either. The real problem, the real itch he couldn’t scratch, was his new role as a burden.

Daryl had always tried to pull his own. At home, hunting with his dad or Merle if they didn’t have enough money to put food on the table; picking up odd jobs to buy his mom’s cigs while Merle took care of her oxy, and all the rest he made would go straight to his daddy’s booze. He stayed out of the house when he could and when he couldn’t, he dropped himself into his room and was careful not to make even his bed creak. When Merle joined the Marine’s, Daryl had tried his hand at a steady job, mostly to get out of the damn house, but the shop went down when the owner had been arrested for things that even Daryl didn’t join in on.

No matter how bad it got, Daryl made sure he couldn’t be called a burden.

Here he was now, though, propped up in bed with pillows and blankets and dumb little picture books about the Jesus from Heaven that the Hippie Prick picked up from the floor to place back on the nightstand every time he came to visit. He’d smile about it, too, like it was so damned funny. Daryl wanted to wring his little neck.

He hated the chipping walls, the scratchy clothes that some lady had brought on request of Jesus, and he hated seeing faces he had no connection with. The only thing he actually liked was the food and he licked his plate clean whenever they gave him a meal. Which was probably far more often than Gregory would have liked, compliments of Jesus yet again. At least he had that going for him.

And Daryl could also admit, at least himself, that it was mildly amusing whenever he heard a knock on the infirmary door. Jesus was the only one to knock, like he was asking to enter Daryl’s personal quarters and not Carson’s medical trailer. Jesus respected privacy, and Daryl respected that.

He was quietly debating with himself whether or not he should leave the bed and try and walk with the crutches Carson had given him earlier when he heard the gentle knock. Five seconds ticked by before it opened and Jesus took a step in.

He looked more disheveled than he had the past few days, as if he’d just come back from a run. Daryl wouldn’t doubt it.

“Are you up for taking visitors?”

“What, you?”

Jesus doesn’t get a chance to answer. The door swings back open, retching Daryl’s attention towards it, and then Maggie rushes into the room. She looks relieved and happy to see him.

She bounces over to him, cropped hair swept up by the wind she’d just come in from, and practically throws herself across his body. Her hug is tighter than a vice.

I’m so-- Rick said you were safe, that Jesus and Tara got you back here alright, but I had to see for myself. We wanted to come sooner, but… Negan paid us a visit.”

The last part is a whisper and it sends a chill up Daryl’s spine. He pulls her as close as he can get, resting his cheek against the top of her head.

“Anyone…” he tries to ask. He can’t bring himself to finish, but Maggie understands.

“No,” she breathes. Her answer is its own sanctuary and Daryl swallows the lump that had begun to grow in his throat.

The creak of the door opening slowly draws his eyes to it. He doesn’t let go of Maggie because she doesn’t let go of him, but he manages a gesture to Glenn when he appears. Daryl had almost forgotten about the burns on his face, but the shy way Glenn steps in says that he certainly hasn’t forgotten about it. He’s never known the kid to be shallow -- Carl got his damn eye shot out and was doing just fine -- but he imagines the stares tossed too-frequently in his direction don’t do much to calm his nerves. In fact, Daryl knows the feeling all too well.

“Hey.” Glenn’s lips twitch into an involuntary smile that turns even more genuine the longer he stares at his wife fussing over Daryl. “You’re not up and about yet? I’m surprised.”

“I woulda been…” He gives a pointed look to Jesus, who raises that one brow and twists his lips smugly.

“Right. As you can see, I’ve chained him to the bed.”

“Might as well have! Won’t leave me the hell alone ‘bout rules and shit. The Doc’s just as bad.”

Maggie pulls away at that, smacking his uninjured leg.

“You be nice to Doctor Carson, Daryl. He’s a good man.” And then, with a smile almost as smug as Hippie Prick’s, she adds: “And Jesus isn’t so bad, either. You been givin’ him a hard time?”

Glenn laughs. “You have to ask?” he says as he strides closer, trying to help Maggie to the chair, but she waves him off in favor of keeping her spot near Daryl.

“Carson might say otherwise,” Jesus interjects, “but we have had worse patients.”

“Seriously?”

Daryl snorts at Glenn’s disbelief. Maggie grins, her green eyes bright with unshed tears.

“Whatever,” he grunts. Jesus’s smile doesn’t falter, nor does he look away.

Daryl counts in his head -- one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi -- until Glenn interrupts their little staring contest.

“No offense to Daryl, but he’s not the only reason we came here.”

Those words seem to be enough to pull Jesus’s attention from Daryl, eyes flickering back and forth between Glenn and Maggie.

“Should I get Harlan?”

“If he’s not busy,” Maggie adds. Daryl doesn’t miss the way she squeezes Glenn’s hand.

“He’s just speaking with Gregory about supplies. We’re low on a few things, non-essentials, but I’ll have to go scouting soon. We wanted to give it some time in case Negan came to us, too.”

“He still might,” Maggie replies again. The set of her mouth is serious, tense. Daryl recognizes that spark in her eyes; it’s dangerous. Anyone who didn’t fear what this woman could do was a damned idiot. “We could lend you some in the meantime, if we have what you need. Carol shared a few things from Kingdom yesterday, courtesy of King Ezekiel, so I think Rick would agree.”

His ears perk up at Carol’s name. He can’t help the deep exhale that follows. Glenn drops a hand to his shoulder, reaching awkwardly across so as not to hurt the injured one, and pats it awkwardly.

“She’s good,” he tells Daryl, struggling to keep his eyes from darting away. Daryl stares right back at him, never once lingering on the burns he figures Glenn wants to hide. There’s something thankful about the smile he receives for it. “She thinks that if there’s an influx of people here, Negan will get suspicious and tear the place apart looking for you.”

Daryl smirks fondly. Carol is always one step ahead.

“We’ll make sure that doesn’t happen,” Jesus says quietly from his corner, and they’re back at square one again. Daryl was eyeing him warily, but he had no clue what the hell kind of motive those big crystal blues had for staring at him without pause. “Daryl’s safe here. You have my word.”

His promise is for Maggie and Glenn, but he doesn’t look at them for more than a brief second. The words repeat in Daryl’s head until he fully comprehends them and understands that Jesus is promising to keep Daryl safe. Rubbing at his nose uncomfortably, Daryl looks towards Doctor Carson’s desk with his mouth turned downwards.

“I’ll go get Harlan now.”

“There’s no rush,” Maggie insists. She shifts into a better position at the edge of Daryl’s cot. “But thank you. Glenn’s been flyin’ off the handle, he’s so worried.”

Daryl’s gaze flickers over to the young man in the chair. Glenn smiles good-naturedly at his wife’s teasing, but there’s lingering worry stirring deep inside his dark eyes. Daryl figures that means there’s still a baby coming, for now. He really hopes the doctor says it’ll stay that way.

Before Jesus steps out of the infirmary, he turns his head in their direction. Daryl can already spot that sly expression.

“For the record, Daryl’s allowed to walk around with crutches. Harlan encourages it, actually. He’s just too shy to leave the room.”

Daryl’s middle finger flies up, facing Hippie Prick’s direction. There’s a laugh that startles him; not by the volume, but by the sound itself. It’s a little deeper than he’d expected from the soft-voiced man, choppy. Imperfectly perfect, if that could ever be a thing. It’s gone too fast to really know, swept away with the breeze as the door jiggles silently shut behind him.

Stupid ninja.


 

“It’s a miracle,” Maggie tells him as they walk along the grounds of Hilltop, dust rucking up from their feet and Daryl’s single crutch.

He’s red-faced, not from the strain but rather from the scowls he’s been having to send everyone’s way, and also possibly from embarrassment. The physical vulnerability isn’t exactly new, but the prying eyes witnessing it all is. And okay, maybe Daryl isn’t exactly a young man anymore; he ain’t old, but he’s feeling every bruise and scrape and shitty gunshot wound like his body was made of cheap glass.

The people milling around remind him of the ones at Alexandria before the walls fell and Deanna perished. They were so ignorant, so unprepared for what lay ahead. As if everything was normal still, as if it ever could be again. You ever think about it? Settling down? Those people were settled, and look where it got them. Most were buried deep in shallow graves and those who survived weren’t so wide-eyed and innocent anymore.

Daryl stops himself from thinking about the past once the faces of those wide-eyed innocents begin to linger his mind. He focuses on Maggie’s voice instead.

“I really thought… Well, it doesn’t matter anymore. We’re here and we’re fine, me and the baby and Glenn.” When she looks at him, left eye squinted against the sun, Daryl looks back fully. The smile she gives him is one of the brightest he’s seen from her in a long time, but even still, it isn’t without its pain. “You’re okay. Rick, Aaron, Sasha… Tara. Carol. Even after everything, all we’ve lost and all we keep losin’, we’re still here.”

Daryl’s eyes avert to his feet as they continue to walk, his hobble getting less and less, though his arm becomes sore against the hard surface of the makeshift crutch. He stops when Maggie puts a hand on his arm, yielding him, and sits on the steps of Barrington House when she does so, too. He catches her line of sight immediately.

It’s on Glenn, in the distance. He’s by the gates, nodding at Jesus beside him and the guards atop the walls. Daryl scoffs at their wielding of those spears, just as strange ad Hippie Prick’s knife fetish. Daryl, probably more than anyone, can appreciate a good blade or any efficiently sharp object, but these damn people at Hilltop think they don’t need guns at all? Jesus had said they’d ran out of ammo a while ago, and yet he’d also said that it wasn’t something they urgently needed. All Daryl knew was that they’d better rethink that decision on the quick if they were hell-bent on keeping him here. If Negan had already paid a visit to Alexandria just in search of Daryl, he probably wouldn’t be too far away from Hilltop. Not for long.

“Glenn likes it here,” Maggie says quietly, catching Daryl’s floundering attention once more. She’s still looking out into the distance, but not seeing anything particular. Or maybe she is and it’s Daryl that can’t see it right. “He thinks we should stick ‘round, ‘til the baby’s born. Mostly ‘cause there’s a doctor here. We were gonna, Sasha got us here while you were droppin’ in and out, left ‘cause of Gregory. But he wants to stay now and… I can tell there’s more to it.”

“He mad at Rick?”

The words don’t sound right to Daryl, are too flippant, as if Glenn would be mad rather than distraught or depressed. But Maggie understands it like she understands everything else. Her round eyes land on him.

“No. Rick’s a leader, but he can’t control everythin’ and he can’t shoulder all our losses alone. Neither of us blame him for anythin’ that’s happened. But I think for the first time, Glenn’s startin’ to lose hope. Ever since that station…”

Daryl knows that all too well. The kid had never killed a living soul before, going in and sacking guys while they slept would never sit well with him. But he did it because he had to and because he wanted to protect those he cared for. Taking lives is never easy for Daryl, the heavy weight of death drops him an inch into his own grave every time he does it, but he does what he does and he doesn’t complain. All the people he’s killed deserved it anyhow, maybe they even had it coming. Maybe Daryl does, too. And that’s why he gets Glenn’s inhibitions, understands that it doesn’t make him weak like it might make others. That it doesn’t make him a liability; it makes him a wonder of this world.

“You gonna stay then? Rick know?”

“I think he does, but we haven’t actually told him yet. Honestly, I’m still not sure. It’s not about where’s safest anymore, it’s more about where we can do the most good and where the most good can be done for us. Right now, that might be here.”

“You trust these people?”

“I trust Jesus,” Maggie says. And the conviction in her voice is as surprising as the way she grabs his hand in hers and holds on tight. “After you and Rick brought him back and we sat down… it seemed strange to see someone so separate from us. Even with Aaron, it was different ‘cause he wanted us to join, but Jesus was just talkin’. He wasn’t asking anythin’ of us, just wanted to bring us here so we could see. People aren’t all like Negan or Gareth or the Governor,” she says, twisting until their knees bump and she’s facing him with determination. “It’s so easy to forget that they’re not. But Alexandria found us, Hilltop found us, the people Carol’s with right now found her. And if there’s a world out there as big and as good as Jesus believes, then I believe it, too.

“Rick told me “everythin’ we’ve done, we’ve done together,” and that that’s why we’re still here. He said we could do anything if it’s all of us doin’ it. And you know what? I believe that now more than ever. For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing. No matter how many bad things happen, we keep goin’ and we keep goin’ right, until we can’t anymore. Glenn will get that again. It’ll just take time… and maybe a change of scenery.”

She’s looking out towards the gates again, smiling when Glenn waves. Daryl looks over, too, and catches the gaze of Jesus. There’s something so optimistic about him, that little shithead, but he’s not delusional. He’s not ignorant to the dangers this world and its people pose. He understands, maybe even as much as Rick and Maggie and Glenn and Daryl himself. It makes him wonder for a moment… what has Jesus lost? Who has he lost? What makes him leave these walls and do the things he does, to help these people survive?

Even after those piercing eyes stray from his, Daryl wonders.


 

It happens sooner than they’d hoped. Of course, they’d been hoping for never, but they knew that would never fly.

The guard -- Kal, Daryl recalls Jesus saying -- calls out just after sunrise the morning after Glenn and Maggie had stopped in. Daryl doesn’t want to think that they’d been followed or that Negan had paid Alexandria another visit for more information, though both options are likely.  

Daryl’s outside when the silent sweep of panic takes over Hilltop. None of these people had seen what had happened in the clearing, but they’d bore witness to it inside their own walls. They knew what the Saviors were capable of. Would they sell him out under Gregory’s order? To stop another from dying the way Jesus said Rory had? He’s not sure he would blame them; he might do the same if it were for one of his own.

He leaps from the steps, wincing when his full weight suddenly strains his healing injuries, but ignores it and begins to dart towards the infirmary where he’d last seen Maggie. He doesn’t even spot Jesus until he’s already stepped into his path, arm extended and palm pressed to Daryl’s chest, bare fingers splayed. Daryl moves to swat him away, to side-step, to open his mouth and tell this asshole to get out of his way. But he does none of those things once he notices the grave determination capturing Jesus’s expression.

“Inside. Now,” he orders. Daryl doesn’t argue.

He turns on his heel and jumps up the few low steps to get to the door. It’s shoved open, startling Gregory on his way out.

“Jesus?” the old man questions. It comes out sounding more like a one-word demand.

“Negan’s here.”

Gregory’s eyes flash widely to Daryl, their shallow depths making him uneasy. If anyone’s going to give him up, Daryl knows it’s this son of a bitch right here.

“For him? Then what are you waiting for? Hand him over--”

“Gregory, please. We don’t have time to talk this through, but I’m asking you for a favor. Don’t say a word to the Saviors about Daryl. Pretend you don’t even know the name. You wouldn’t help anyone against his orders and you haven’t, this is on me. If he finds out, I’ll come forward. You’ll be safe. You know Negan likes you, Gregory. He respects you. Don’t give him a reason not to.”

Daryl’s ears are ringing with the sound of bullshit, but there’s something about the earnestness of Jesus’s words, the way he almost believes them himself, that makes the man seem truly dangerous. He’s manipulating the guy who’s supposed to be top dog, sucking up to feed his ego until he inadvertently starts eating out of the palm of Jesus’s hands. Daryl might be a little amazed if he weren’t so dumbfounded. But there’s no time for either emotion.

“Alright,” Gregory says, puffing up with misplaced pride. “I’ll collude with you on this, Jesus. But if Negan gets angry--”

“Just play it out, Gregory. You’re smarter than even Negan knows.”

His words are hastier than Daryl had yet to hear from him, no doubt spurred on by the sudden echo of voices from outside, but they’re no less like honey to Gregory’s ears.

Daryl feels two hands start to prod him towards the door on the same wall as Gregory’s office while the old man steels himself and steps out. The noises from beyond intensify.

Jesus rushes into the room after Daryl and shuts the doors quietly behind them. Looking around, Daryl swallows, having no clue what they’re supposed to do in a library. Evidently, Jesus does.

“Daryl,” he says quietly. And when Daryl looks over, he’s tugging on a bookcase.

“You’re shittin’ me,” Daryl growls, but he doesn’t waste time in trying to help Jesus with the heavy lifting. They slide it away from the wall, revealing a square outline in the peeling wallpaper.

“A later addition,” Jesus says just as quietly as before, eyes darting towards the the sheer curtains covering the windows. They can see the people of Hilltop gathering around at the Savior’s orders. “I thought it might come in handy. Looks like I was right.”

“Yeah, we’ll see.”

Jesus kicks into the square, forcing it to swing upward. He bends down and holds it open with his fingertips and then looks to Daryl next, eyebrows raised in expectation. Daryl scowls, but drops into a crouch and crawls inside the small, dark hole. He really doesn’t like the idea of being shut in and locked up behind a heavy shelf he’ll have no way of knocking over once the wall drops back down. But there isn’t anything he can do about it, not unless he wants to face Negan’s men head on.

Was it Dwight that sold them out? Was he going to? Why would he help Daryl in the first place? He hates how none of it can matter now.

“You’ll be safe.”

“Yeah, well you get killed out there and I’ll be stuck.

“Trust me.”

Daryl looks up from his spot on the floor, pressed as far back as the hole is deep. He can see Jesus illuminated from the window’s sunlight and he thinks back to Maggie’s words. I trust Jesus, she had said. And after everything he’d done for Daryl and his family, after everything he was still doing -- risking his life again -- there was no reason for Daryl not to trust Jesus right now.

“Don’t let Glenn or Maggie do anythin’ stupid,” is all he can think to say. He figures Jesus takes it as some sort of olive branch.

“I’ll try. And here --” A knife is pulled from his vest, the only piece of his outerwear he had taken to wearing inside the walls. He spins it around, gripping the blade and offering the hilt to Daryl. “Just in case.”

Daryl grasps it without question.

His head tilts back to rest against the wall when he’s engulfed in darkness. The scraping of the bookcase being jammed back into place is muffled to his ears. And then there’s silence. He doesn’t hear footsteps or a door, not even any shouting. He can’t hear anything at all, except his own breathing and his heart shifting gears. The dust makes it hard to breathe.

 

The feeling of uselessness sets in too quickly and the sense of claustrophobia not long after. He’s never been afraid of small spaces, but he thinks back to being enclosed underground at the CDC and what being stuck there could have meant, and he feels his insides go taut with anxiety. He can’t hear anything outside from himself. Is that good or bad? How much more blood is he about to have on his hands?

The knife Jesus gave him sits steadily in his hand, its blade clinking against the wood delicately. He holds the hilt tighter after a moment, the rough skin of his fingers grinding against the rubber, nails digging deeper into the indents that are already there. It hadn’t been one of the two Jesus kept on either side of his hips; not the main weapon of choice for Jesus, it seemed, but still a well-worn spare. How many walkers had he’d killed with this blade? How many people? Daryl begins to wish he’d let Rick ask those questions, although he doubts Jesus would have answered them honestly at the time. He was working against the clock, waiting to detour them with firecrackers in a barrel. Daryl almost snorts.

The tactic was smart, and so is this one. Maybe Jesus deserves something other than irritable indifference. Maybe.

He twists his wrist, lifts it up and slams it back down in frustration. The blade dings into the flimsy criss-crossed planks beneath him, grinding into the grain. He repeats the motion, again and again and again, and then he stops, suddenly exhausted. Daryl’s hand falls away, limp beside his cramped thighs, and he shuts his eyes as if the switch of one darkness for another, one of his own choosing, will bring him more peace.

He’s sweating. Probably losing oxygen, all cramped up like this. He doesn’t really know. He wants a smoke. Maybe it’ll kill him faster.

 

The sudden scraping of the bookshelf in front of his hiding spot has him jerking in surprise, knocking his head against the wall. He can fill dirt fall to his shoulders. Tensing, Daryl yanks the knife from the wooden boards and holds it to the right of his chest, elbow out and bent, ready to strike while his knees come up in a defensive position. He’ll start with a kick first, then go for the stab. But what can he do after? There’s no place to run and he can’t pretend his current condition doesn’t make this harder. But he’ll try, he always tries, and maybe just once it’ll be good enough.

When the scraping stops, Daryl steels himself. The square door bangs open with a kick, the light streaming in blinding him momentarily, but he forces his legs into a forward push anyway.

“Ugh- Hey, hey!” The person on the other side catches his legs mid-swing. “It’s just me, Daryl. Okay? Just me.”

He blinks up, trying to let his eyes adjust to the sudden beams of light, and inhales the fresh air as if he had been starving for it. It’s Jesus, alright, holding Daryl’s calf in one hand and his dirty, booted foot in the other. Crouched down like this, Jesus’s hair cascades around him, creating a curtain like it had in the van. Except it’s not blocking Daryl this time, it’s blocking Jesus’s own face, and the hunched posture says that might be intentional.

He doesn’t know what comes over him when he reaches up. His right hand props him off the floor, the blade poking out as rubber etches temporary grooves into his palm. But his left hand rises, fingers jerky and swift in their pursuit, and he grabs a handful of hair to shifts it away.

The eyes of Jesus, wide and blue beneath tensed brows, strike up to his face fiercely. But the connection doesn’t knock him back. Neither of them says a word, just stares and stares.

Daryl doesn’t know what comes over him, except maybe guilt or worry; worry that Jesus might have taken punishment for him, that the side of his face would now be aflame, peeling and bloodied and --

But there’s nothing that severe. In the light cast from the shaded window, Daryl can make out the formation of a bruise. The skin is reddened, turning purple, with oblong spots discoloring its usual peachy hue. There’s a little cut, a split upon his cheekbone, but nothing else he can spy.

The hair falls back into place when Daryl moves his hand, hanging down in front of Jesus’s shoulder while Daryl reaches his arm across to to the right side. The look he gets now is less severe, less… suspicious. Daryl might even call the new expression curious, something akin to patience. But Daryl ignores the silent questioning and grabs another handful of hair, tilting his own head to get a better look in the darkness. He exhales through his nose when he sees the skin completely untouched.

“What, you turn the other cheek?” he mocks lowly. Guttural. But his tone doesn’t erase the concern his actions had just shown, nor does it erase the slow shift of Jesus’s expression, morphing into something far too soft and far too amused.

“This time,” he concedes. And it’s only then that he lets Daryl’s legs plop back onto the floor. As Jesus stands, he adds, “But I won’t always.”

It says a lot that Daryl actually believes him.

His ass scoots across the hard floor, his boots squeaking as they propel him forward, his pants threatening to slip right off if it weren’t for the belt wrapped tightly around his waist. Jesus doesn’t offer to help again after the first brush-off of his outstretched hand, so he stands back with his arms crossed instead, neck craned as if trying to catch sight of Daryl’s expression.

Once he’s out of the dark little cubby, he climbs up onto his feet and steadies himself against the bookshelf. His thigh burns and even his shoulder is starting to ache with phantom pains. Without his hand or head holding it up, the wall slams down behind him.

He offers the knife back to Jesus, sweaty palm clutching the blade a little to tightly. The other man shakes his head, twisting his hand at waist level and showing his palm once more. Daryl’s eyes dart to it briefly and then land back onto the bearded face in front of him.

“Keep it. You never got yours back. And I have plenty.”

Daryl takes the offering, as he’s had no other weapon on him since getting shot by Dwight, and he stashes it into his back pocket for lack of anywhere better to put it. He nods towards Jesus’s bruised face.

“Why’d you get smacked?”

“Do any of them need a reason?”

“Nah, guess not.”

“But… still,” Jesus continues, allowing his arms to flop to his sides. “They know my role here. If anyone were to help you escape, of course it’d be me. Maggie and Glenn being here kind of disrupted Plan A, which was to claim that none of us knew who your group even was. So, I had to go with Plan B.”

“Which was what?”

Despite the situation, or maybe in spite of it, Jesus smirks.

“Plausible deniability,” he says. “Gregory's favorite tactic. It didn’t seem like they were actually looking for you, they just wanted someone to punish. Negan wasn’t with them, which means this isn’t something that will drag out for long. Hilltop hasn’t exactly caught the same… ire as Alexandria has recently. Not yet, anyway.”

“So, what? You gonna lock me in that hole every time someone comes knockin’? Might as well head back, least then I can stand with my own people.”

Jesus shakes his head, concern creasing between his brows once more. It’s becoming a routine sight.

“I won’t stop you, Daryl, but it’d be a mistake. You’ll be putting them in even more danger--”

“You said they ain’t after me now.”

“Do you think Negan needs an excuse to cause trouble? More than he already has? Right now, Rick’s afraid of him--”

“Rick ain’t afraid,” Daryl interrupts again, but he doesn’t believe his own words. Rick is afraid and Jesus knows it, too. Everyone does.

“He’s afraid,” Jesus repeats carefully, “we all are. But they can’t control Rick for long, not like they can with Gregory. I’m sure you can imagine how that’s a problem. Look, we’re on the same side--”

“So you’ve said,” Daryl replies gruffly, interrupting for a third time. Jesus doesn’t seem peeved, though. Apparently he has unimaginable patience.

“And yet you still don’t believe me.”

Daryl drops his gaze to Jesus’s hands. They’ve come up to stomach-level, one hand cradling the other, thumb pressing into his palm. The other fingers twitch from however much pressure he’s applying. Daryl’s seen the younger man do this before; while visiting Daryl’s bedside, when speaking of Negan and the Saviors that first time at Hilltop. Daryl wonders if it’s some sort of nervous habit, or a manifestation of stress. Maybe his cool head isn’t so easy to keep as he’d like people to believe.

Daryl exhales and relaxes his posture minutely. The threat is gone, but he still feels shitty.

“I do,” he says softly, after a stretch of silence, and then Jesus has that contemplative look again. Daryl looks down, scratching at his head. “You’ve done right by us so far. ‘Sides from stealing our truck… and lettin’ us think Negan wasn’t shit.”

There’s an intake of breath from Jesus at Daryl’s words, almost like a huff. It catches him a little off guard.

“I explained what they did to Rory. They did the same thing to your friend. I didn’t know anything else.”

“’Said they had groups of twenty…” An image of the clearing flashes before his eyes, the people he cares for lined up for the picking, all of them surrounded by what could have been a hundred or more Saviors. “Had more than that.”

“I told you we didn’t know,” Jesus says as he looks Daryl straight in the eye. “And I said that the groups we saw were as big as twenty, I figured you would have guessed he had more stashed away somewhere.”

Daryl turns away and begins to push the bookshelf back into its place. Jesus doesn’t try to help, he just keeps talking and it makes Daryl pause again.

“But I am sorry, Daryl… for Abraham. There’s no real way to make it right, but we can try our best, and we can do that by working together.”

Everything we’ve done, we’ve done together. Those were Rick’s words, Maggie had told him. Success or failure, he couldn’t say it wasn’t still true. He wouldn’t be here ten times over otherwise. If they could do what they needed to do by working with Hilltop and Jesus, then they would. He would.

“I’m gonna hold you to that.”

Jesus nods, smiling kindly.

“Fair enough.”