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Where the Dandelions Grow

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I. Now

He wakes up warm. There’s a short time that he is tempted to surrender to the heavy weight behind his eyes, let himself drift off once more, but the callused fingers traveling across the ridges of his spine wander to the edge of his ribs where he’s the most ticklish. He inhales loudly, stretches out beneath the comforter, toes rubbing against something warm and solid, before he finally opens his eyes.

Instinctively, he flinches as the brightness floods his vision. The sun is garish and brilliant against his poor, flimsy excuse of a curtain – and he makes a mental note to find some actual, opaque drapes. Spring has already taken hold of Alexandria – and summer isn’t too far behind.

The hand against his ribs shifts, up and away, once again flat against his back, tracing an upward path towards his shoulder blades. Paul takes another breath and lays his lips on the man’s sternum, until he feels those fingers pause. The solid figure beneath him takes a shuddering breath.

Paul presses his lips there again, drags his teeth to the man’s throat, to his jaw. He stops himself there, choosing to nuzzle his nose against the soft curve of his bedmate’s neck. The smell of pine and cedar – and a hint of whiskey – swirls all around him.

“Good morning,” he finally says. He draws himself back and props himself up on his hands, using the man’s chest as a foundation.

Those blue eyes stare back. They no longer drift away like they once used to. There isn’t something dark in those irises that shakes Paul down to the bones. Now, all that’s left there is something warm and familiar. Affection – although he would never utter that aloud. Not yet, at least.

With time, though. A little more time to get accustomed to one another. Just a little more.

Paul Rovia is a patient man but, unlike his moniker, he certainly isn’t a saint.

“Mornin’,” Daryl finally says. The hand on his back falls somewhere against the mattress, much to his disappointment.

If there’s one thing Paul knows about Daryl Dixon, it’s that he’s a man of few words. Paul doesn’t mind, however, because he’s more than happy to fill the silences in between.

“Thought you were going on a run with Rick this morning?” He remembers a brief mention of it the night before. He remembers expecting to wake up alone to a cold bed.

“Was gonna,” Daryl tells him. “But he wanted to go all the way to the Kingdom.”

If anything, Paul feels even more confused than when he woke up.

He laughs. “That never stopped you before.”

Daryl told him some time ago that he liked the longer trips, the time he was away from Alexandria and its fancy suburban houses. Places where he didn’t feel like he was suffocating or that the walls were closing in on him. Granted, he had one beer too many that night on the porch, but loose lips often provide sober thoughts.

This time, he doesn’t get much of an answer. He hears a faint grunt – an affirmative that he heard the comment at least – but his mind short-circuits when those large, callused hands return to his skin, worn but achingly familiar. Daryl reaches up and pulls a stray strand away from Paul’s face, tucking it behind his ear.

“Didn’t feel like goin’ this time,” Daryl mumbles. He utters it so quiet that Paul nearly misses it.

There’s a flip in his stomach, something between butterflies and a sudden drop. The words register in his mind but admittedly, he has trouble comprehending them. A hundred questions fly through his brain, like bolts of lightning in an electric storm, but he can’t bring himself to ask a single one.

Instead, Paul sits up, one hand flat against Daryl’s chest. For a few moments, they just stare at one another. It briefly reminds him of their second meeting, Paul in the grass with two guns pointed at him. Daryl staring down at him like a silent challenge. Thankfully, there aren’t any guns this time. There’s a distinct lack of clothing compared to then as well.

Finally, Paul closes his eyes and leans back down, slotting their lips together in a lazy kiss that leaves his skin tingling. Daryl’s kisses remind him of something primal, something not quite wild but not yet tame either, situated in that gray area in between. He’s the only person Paul’s ever kissed that could be both rough and endearing all the same.

He draws away, still close enough that Daryl’s breath fans against his cheek. When he opens his eyes again, he finds those tantalizing blues staring at him, hazier than they were before.

“What did you feel like doing then?”

The palm that wraps around his cock is a surprise – because he still vividly remembers Daryl’s clumsy, inexperienced fingers that once danced around him like his skin was glass about to break.

It’s hard to believe; he thinks as Daryl pushes him down and switches their positions until he’s the one hovering over Paul. Daryl’s spits on his hand and grips the base of Paul’s cock with confidence, pumping him agonizingly slow – until Paul’s left a breathless mess beneath him with a thousand pleas readied on his tongue.

Daryl kisses him, licking into his mouth as his hand speeds up. He swallows Paul’s gasping moans with ease, nips at his jaw as the pad of his thumb teases the slit.

Paul’s nails scrape against the rough edges of Daryl’s face, dragging down, across his broad shoulders and firm arms to his waist, where he can feel the shallow divot of an old scar. He wraps a leg around Daryl’s flank, hoping for some sort of leverage.

“Fuck,” he manages, arching up into Daryl’s hand with impatience. “Daryl – oh fuck. Daryl, m’gonna come. Fuck.”

Daryl’s hand quickens and Paul can feel that blindingly familiar tightness coiling in his gut. Paul yanks him back down by the scruff, pushes their mouths together, and Daryl strokes him through it. He watches with keen eyes as Paul comes undone beneath him. He kisses him through the haze of it, lets Paul memorize the contours of his mouth again and again until he can finally feel his toes once more.

“Fuck,” he says again, for the lack of a better word.

It’s enough to earn a rare semblance of a smile from Daryl. If he were anyone else, he probably wouldn’t know any better. The slight upward curve of his lips is barely present, gone as quick as it had appeared, but Paul captures a glimpse of it.

He’s not surprised to see that Daryl has quickly picked up on the aftercare side of things. The man reaches to the floor and bundles up the white cloth in his hand before using it to wipe away the mess from Paul’s stomach. It takes Paul a moment to realize what happened.

“Was that my shirt?”

“I’ll get ya a new one,” is all Daryl tells him before flopping back down next to him. He’s pliant as Paul wraps himself around him like an octopus.

“Alright,” he agrees. “But I’m borrowing one of yours until then – one that still has sleeves.” There is probably only a handful of shirts Daryl hasn’t managed to get to with a pair of scissors.

Daryl scoffs at him, but doesn’t try to convince him otherwise.

“So,” he decides to say, venturing forward towards a destination he doesn’t know. “Why didn’t you go with him?”

“Them,” Daryl corrects gruffly. “Tara and Aaron went too.”

“Wasn’t asking about them. Was asking ‘bout you.”

For whatever reason, Daryl seems reluctant to answer him. Paul has an inkling – but he’s almost afraid to let himself entertain such an idea. The elusive, lone wolf Daryl Dixon missing someone like Paul – who’s anything but – is quite a concept. One that he’s reluctant to even dream.

His father had always told him he cared too much, that others didn’t care enough. But it never stopped him. It was a constant battle between head and heart; and logically, he always came out the other end more broken than when he went in.

It didn’t take face-eating corpses to make him believe that people would ever really change. They adapted, they grew hard edges and learned how to pull a trigger without remorse, but their hearts never changed shape.

He never truly believed anything big would come from him and Daryl Dixon. It’d end with heartbreak on his part, because he made the mistake of letting his guard down, but this was the first time he actually paused. Considered the possibilities…

“Jus’ didn’t feel like goin’ is all.”

Paul doesn’t believe him. There’s definitely more than meets the eye. But Daryl doesn’t respond well to prodding – he figured that out pretty fast – so he merely lets them be. He sighs softly and reaches for Daryl’s hand, until their fingers are woven around one another’s.

After all, spending the day in bed doesn’t sound too awful to him whatsoever.

 


 

II. Then

War is…different than he expected it to be. It moves at a snail’s pace in comparison to all the movies he’s seen. It’s bloody and gruesome, as loud as it is quiet. But when someone withers away in front of your very eyes, it’s almost surreal. None of it seems to sink in properly. No, it takes days for him to process when they lose a single person whose name he can actually recall. Sometimes, he’ll turn around and expect Kal to be at his flank, spear in hand, only to find himself completely vulnerable to an attack.

And the end hardly feels like an end at all because too many of the other side still stand, eyes narrowed in disgust, guns pointed to their gates. All it would take is one bullet. One bullet to start another war. One bullet to begin another period of madness. War has cycled since the beginning of humanity. That’s one thing the new world hasn’t found a way to change.

He quickly finds that he’s not the only one displeased with the outcome.

“We’re better than this. Better than him.”

Rick may be a leader – a damn good one at that – but Paul doubts he’ll ever agree with him on the handling of Negan and the Saviors. He knows it’ll come back to haunt them, because Dwight can only do so much. Monsters can change their skin, but they can never change their true colors.

Peace is…quiet. It lingers, but the silence is anything but comforting. It feels like the calm before a thunderstorm, the eye of a hurricane. Like he’s waiting for something to happen. For someone else to die or for someone to pick up a gun and decide they’ve had enough.

Peace is a pipe dream in a world without rules.

Paul decides to stay in Alexandria. Truth be told, there isn’t a solid reason as to why he chose not to return to Hilltop, but it’s what he settles on regardless. Hilltop was never home to him. Neither is Alexandria, but these people have a better feel for the world around them than any other group he’s been with.

He misses Maggie. But he knows that Hilltop’s in good hands with someone like her. And she’s stronger than most of them, strong enough to stand on her own two feet.

He ends up sticking close to the walls for the time being. He takes shifts up in the guard tower, helps Tara and Eric with inventory when they ask for it. Eventually, it becomes a routine. Mundane – but any semblance of normalcy is welcome now. In some ways, he finds himself clinging to it. It helps him forget, makes him fall asleep the moment he’s horizontal instead of sitting through the flashes of images that like to cycle through his mind whenever he thinks too long or hard.

The only odd thing he discovers is how out of sync Alexandria is in comparison to Hilltop. He notices how Tara lingers in what’s left of the nurse’s station. He notices how Eugene and Rosita often wander about with only one another as company, outside the gates more so than inside. He notices how Daryl walks the streets at dawn and dusk with only his crossbow and the occasional bottle of whiskey as company.

The people of Alexandria are frostier than the people at Hilltop ever were. They’re naturally distrustful – even after all this – but can’t blame them. Hell, if he were in their position, he wouldn’t trust himself either.

Predictably, friends are hard to come by in such a chilly climate. He spends most of his time with Tara – because “we gays have to stick together”, her words not his – or Rick – because he’s a familiar face. He sometimes eats dinner at Aaron and Eric’s. He’s babysat Judith when everyone else was too busy to.

For awhile, he feels like he just…exists.

It feels like he’s doing the bare minimum to scrape through the day. In some ways, he supposes that it’s not far from the truth. He also sees a lot of people doing the same.

Existing is a common sight to see. Living, however, is not.

“Ever feel like you’re just…floating. That you’re just there and…” He sucks in a breath, unsure of the right words.

When he looks over, he finds Daryl staring at him like he’s sprouted a second head. He’d laugh under any other circumstance, but he always feels like Daryl’s two seconds from shoving him off the watchtower. There are a lot more…honorable ways to go.

The cigarette between his lips is limp, close to falling to the ground.

“How much did ya have t’drink?”

“Nothing,” he answers, slow. Paul looks back down to the trees. “Never mind. Just forget I said anything.”

He can feel Daryl’s eyes against his skin but Daryl doesn’t say anything more. Eventually, Daryl goes back to staring at the woods as well, searching for any signs of trouble. There’s a gun on his shoulder instead of a crossbow.

Frankly, he doubts that Daryl cares about ninety-five percent of what comes out of his mouth. Daryl doesn’t seem to have any inclination for idle chatter, let alone any of Paul attempts. Daryl doesn’t hate him like he used to – the threats have stopped at least – but they’re not really friends either. Their relationship exists somewhere in that gray area that doesn’t have a name as far as he’s aware of.

Daryl’s distaste of him stopped after the Sanctuary. It’s as close to a ‘thank you’ that Paul will probably ever get from him, but it’s better than nothing he supposes.

“Gonna go on a run tomorrow,” he hears Daryl say. “Won’t be back fer’ a week. Maybe two.”

When he turns to the redneck, he finds Daryl staring back.

The sunset makes Daryl’s hair shine gold under the right circumstances. The yellow and red glare makes the archer’s eyes impossibly bright. It makes him miss the ocean.

“You hear me?”

“Yeah,” Paul manages out, tearing his eyes away. His face feels warm. “Yeah. I heard you.”

He pauses, considers the words, and can’t help but ask, “Why are you telling me this?”

Daryl shrugs halfheartedly. “Won’t be up here tomorrow,” he answers, like it’s an explanation.

“Where are you going?”

“The Kingdom. And then some.”

Further out than the Kingdom… It’s further than he’s ever bothered to go. Wander too far and you’ll get lost – that’s what Alex always told him. Although, he supposes it was a feeble attempt to keep Paul from going too far.

“Just…be careful,” Paul decides to stay. He doubts Daryl would appreciate Alex’s advice. Knowing him, he’d probably take it as an insult. Paul would rather avoid a misunderstanding altogether.

“Yeah, yeah. I ain’t runnin’ out there blind,” Daryl grumbles with a scowl. He puts out his cigarette and leans back.

Paul stares towards the sun once more, until his eyes begin to burn. Where everything else is strange and new, the sun is the only thing that feels like home.

 



True to his word, Paul doesn’t see Daryl for nearly a week and a half. He’s stationed at the gate when Rick’s group returns and he signals for Eugene to let them through. Thankfully, they don’t appear to have any injuries aside from the occasional, reckless bruise. They seem more tired than anything.

“Find anything out there?” he asks Daryl soon after he reaches the ground.

Daryl’s eyes snap to him, not expecting a question so soon apparently. He gnaws at his thumb and scrapes the toe of his boot into the dirt.

“Nah.”

“Better off finding nothing than something bad, I guess,” he offers.

Daryl doesn’t bother with a reply. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a box of cigarettes and a lighter. The smell of cigarette smoke hasn’t changed all these years either.

Something Paul has noticed recently is Daryl’s penchant for fidgeting. He always needs to keep himself busy in some way. Whether it’s a method to ward off conversation or a means to burn off excess energy, he doesn’t know.

Eventually, everyone goes their own way. Rick and Michonne go to unload some of the supplies Ezekiel must have provided them, while Morgan and Rosita disappear somewhere back into the streets of Alexandria. Perhaps, to check on Negan. He’s pretty sure Morgan was the one who constructed the cell in the first place.

His watch ends when Aaron relieves him. The sun is already setting when he walks the lonely street, taking the familiar path back to his own empty home. Every day, his route takes him past what he assumes to be Daryl’s house. It’s an old, tattered model – and Paul wouldn’t be surprised if Daryl chose that house for that reason alone. As far as he’s aware, no one else lives there except for the archer. Typically, it’s all but desolate when he treads past.

This time, however, he has to pause because Daryl is sitting there on his dimly lit porch, on an old rickety chair with a flask of something in one hand, lit cigarette in the other.

“Got room for one more?” he calls over.

Daryl’s eyes are impossibly dark beneath the muted lighting, but he doesn’t say no. Paul hugs his jacket closer to his chest, because autumn has come and the air has grown increasingly brisk during the night, and takes the detour, turning right towards Daryl’s house rather than continuing forward towards his own.

The steps creak horribly loud below his feet. For a moment, he wonders if they’ll shatter beneath his weight, but they never do. The chair he settles down in, thankfully, feels a lot more stable.

Daryl hands him the flask and Paul takes a gulp, almost immediately regretting the decision because it burns the whole way down. He coughs, throat aflame, and nearly drops the whole container.

When he returns it to its rightful owner, he finds a look of amusement written across Daryl’s face – one that makes him blush down to his toes.

“Lightweight,” Daryl huffs.

“I thought I drank gasoline for a second there,” Paul returns. “How do you enjoy that stuff?"

“Tasted worse,” Daryl tells him with a shrug. “Ain’t the taste that matters anyway.”

“I wouldn’t go that far. It matters a little.” Then again, he’s always been of the pickier sort when it came to food and drink. He was also one of those kids that went through both a ‘I won’t eat anything green’ phase and a ‘hardcore vegan’ phase when he reached college.

Daryl looks him straight in the eye and takes another drink from the flask. Paul barely stops himself from laughing. Let it be known that Daryl Dixon has a sense of humor, albeit, an odd one, but it is something regardless.

“You know what I miss – from before?” he begins, leaning back. “Strawberries.”

“Strawberries?” Daryl echoes.

“Mhm,” he agrees with a nod. “My grandmother had a garden full of them. I used visit her after I finished school to pick some. Always had a basket full of them in the fridge for the summer. They tried to grow some at Hilltop, but they never ripened. Or the bugs got to them.”

Wendy’s garden, unfortunately, paled in comparison to the one his grandmother built from scratch.

“You miss anything?” he asks the archer.

Daryl shrugs and tears his eyes away, staring ahead at something Paul can’t quite pinpoint.

“Didn’t have nothin’ to miss,” he mutters. It’s barely a whisper, and Paul wonders if the statement was meant for his ears at all.

He’s sure that’s not true. Otherwise, he doubts the man sitting beside him would even be here right now. He considers his words, considers rebutting that, but ultimately bites his tongue. What they were - the people they used to be before this - hardly matters now.

“I miss libraries too.” Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Daryl’s gaze flicker back to him. “And seafood.” He pauses, but decides to trudge forward. “I lived in San Francisco for the better half of a decade. There’s no place like that – not even before.”

He remembers being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, visiting the Exploratorium for the first time. Even now, he can practically feel the crisp pages against his fingertips as he read through book after book at the San Francisco Public Library. The art on the walls that felt more like home than his own shoe-box apartment. That’s probably the closest he’ll ever get to paradise – he doesn’t even want to imagine how the Bay Area looks now.

“You got all the way out here from there?” Daryl asks him with a crinkled expression.

“God, no,” he answers, shaking his head. “Moved there after high school, moved back to Pennsylvania after I dropped out of college. Looking back at it now, maybe that was a good decision after all.”

Daryl takes another sip of his flask and averts his gaze back to the empty road in front of them.

“Shoulda known,” Daryl grumbles after a short pause.

“Huh?”

Daryl points at him and for the first time that night, he fumbles. “S’the hair.”

Even under the dim light, Paul can see the flush quickly spreading across Daryl’s face – like wildfire to a dry field.

“My hair?” he repeats incredulously. He can feel his brow reaching his hairline. Within his chest, bubbling laughter begins to build, threatening to pour through his lips at any moment. Barely – just barely – he holds it in.

“You look like a goddamn tree hugger, man,” Daryl mutters, taking another swig from the flask - as if to stop himself from saying anything else.

This time, Paul laughs. “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘hippie’,” he tells the archer. “Not that tree hugger doesn’t mean the same thing. And I don’t think I ever fit the description really well, to be quite honest.”

Daryl doesn’t appear convinced.

“You’re thinking of the people that would stand in front of the mayor’s office with picket signs,” he points out. “I never did that. On an average Friday night, you probably would’ve found me passed out next to a toilet. Or close to one, at least.”

Quite honestly, the closest he came to a “tree hugger” phase was during his brief stint as a vegan. Hell, he didn’t even start growing out his hair until he was well back into Pennsylvania and picking up odd side jobs. The “Jesus” moniker followed soon after.

He can tell that Daryl is surprised, even if his face doesn’t give much away. Everyone he’s told his old college stories to apparently didn’t expect tales of that sort from him. Sometimes, he supposes, it is enjoyable to watch their jaws drop to the floor – to catch them off guard if even for a few moments.

“I was much more interested in the party scene than the social justice one,” Paul sums up with a snort. It was probably one of the biggest reasons he flunked out of university – because being hung-over more often than not made studying increasingly difficult.

“And if there’s one thing that I have learned, it’s not to take a drink from a total stranger because it’s probably drugged.”

“Shit,” he hears Daryl mumble before the man scrubs a hand across his face.

“I found out the hard way. Thought I was dying at first.” Thankfully, his friends were decent enough to actually take him to the ER that night. The bill, however, was far less forgiving.

“Happened to m’brother a couple a’times,” Daryl eventually says.

“You have a brother?” Paul asks without thinking – because he didn’t know that. Daryl has never mentioned him once.

Daryl nods. “Merle.”

“Where is he now?”

Paul doesn’t expect an answer. He doesn’t get one either. One look at Daryl’s darkened expression is enough for him to put the pieces together.

After a minute or so passes by in complete silence, Daryl gets up from his seat.

“S’gettin’ late,” Daryl says. If he’s angry, Paul can’t tell from his tone. His voice is gruff as it usually is, but the added venom he half-expected – because he prodded a little too close to home – never materializes.

“Yeah,” Paul agrees thickly, climbing to his feet. His legs feel like lead. “I should be getting back then.”

The stairs feel even more precarious beneath his feet now, creaking with every step he takes. Thankfully, he returns to the gravel unharmed.

Before he walks away, down the dark lonely street, he stops and turns back. Daryl is still in the doorway, watching him with his arms crossed across his chest. As if he needs to be wary – as if a walker or one of the Saviors is about to jump out of the bushes and attack Paul.

“Goodnight, Daryl.”

 


 

The next morning, he finds something curious next to his front door. It’s a simple basket – intricate enough to indicate that it was woven together before the dead started to rise. There’s a white cloth thrown over the top of it, concealing whatever lies inside.

Paul lowers down to his knees to get a closer look. He pushes the fabric aside and finds a heap of ripe strawberries filling the basket to the brim. They smell overwhelmingly sweet, like the ones he remembers eating as a child.

The smile that stretches across his face is honest and true, and the warmth it brings reaches down into his chest, into his stomach, until he feels like he’s floating, weightless and free.

 



III. Now

“You really didn’t have to do this,” he says after he scrounges through a bit of the muddled pile in the back of the truck.

“Wasn’t my idea,” Tara tells him with a grin. “Not that I’m not happy to do it but… It was Maggie’s idea. She said you probably missed some of your books, so we loaded most of them into the truck. Sorry, if we missed any though. There were a lot.”

He laughs. “Yeah. I had a library in the making back there.”

It isn’t until Tara steps away that Daryl stops at his side, staring down at him curiously. Paul hands him the book in his hand. Daryl takes it, looks at the cover, flips it open and lets his finger file through the pages in a quick succession before letting the thin cover fall shut once more.

“No pictures,” he mutters as he hands it back.

“Nope,” he agrees with a snort. “I remember reading this in high school. It was one of my favorites.” The Great Gatsby novel remains in his hands only for a short time before he places it back on top of the abundant pile.

Daryl shrugs. He chews at his thumb nail like he does when he’s nervous. It’s one of Daryl’s quirks that Paul happened to notice one day and couldn’t stop noticing.

“Maggie always said my books were a fire hazard.”

“Yeah, I ‘member,” Daryl says with a scoff.

Sometimes, he forgets that Daryl has seen his trailer. The man slept on his couch for two days while he recovered, before he returned to Alexandria for the final time.

“Maybe I should build a bookshelf,” he mutters mostly to himself before he turns back to Daryl with a charming smile.

“Wanna help me carry all this back to my place, big guy?”

“What am I – a pack mule or somethin’?”

Daryl helps him carry every last stack back regardless.

 



“So, you ain’t goin’ back?” Daryl asks him while they’re sitting out on Paul’s porch that night, nursing two beers. It was out on this porch that Daryl pointed out the constellations to him close to a month ago, listing them off with ease. Paul didn’t know jack shit about stars, but apparently Daryl did.

“Why?” he says with a playful smile. “Would you miss me?”

Daryl takes a sip of his beer, appearing less than enthusiastic. It’s enough to sober Paul for a few moments. The last thing he wants is Daryl putting up his iron walls again.

“No,” he answers truthfully. “I’m not planning on it. Besides, I like it better here anyway. It’s…more spacious.”

Daryl scoffs.

“What? You don’t believe me. Is it really hard to believe – I mean, look at this place.” He points back to his own home. “It’s bigger than any house I’ve ever lived in.”

“It’s too big,” Daryl rasps.

That makes Paul pause because…well, he remembers what Daryl had said before, about the walls closing in on him. He doubts these big Victorian houses remind Daryl of his roots. He wonders if anyone living in Alexandria used to live in places like these.

“Did it feel too big when you were living with Rick and the others?”

Daryl doesn’t answer him. He doesn’t have to.

“It’s too big for one person,” Paul tells him. “Just takes some getting used to, is all.”

If there’s a fundamental difference between Paul Rovia and Daryl Dixon, it’s that Paul Rovia moves on with every passing day and doesn’t look back. Daryl Dixon, however, seems to still be battling the demons from his past. Paul will probably never know what they are, but what he does know is that the moment you stop moving forward is the moment this world will eat you alive.

When Paul looks at these houses, he thinks about all the people who wanted to move into neighborhoods like this and raise a family of their own. Paul doesn’t know what Daryl sees when he looks at these homes, but he knows that it’s very different from his perspective.

He downs the rest of his beer in one gulp before climbing to his feet. Daryl is staring up at him with a look Paul can’t quite decipher. It’s one that makes his chest flutter pleasantly though.

“I’m going to take a shower.” This time, he doesn’t hesitate when he asks, “Did you want to stay the night?”

Paul never hears a verbal answer but Daryl crushes the empty beer can in his hand, gets to his feet, and walks to the front door. It isn't until after he steps through the threshold that he comes to a gradual halt. He holds the door open and looks back, as if asking, ‘are you coming?’

With a small, knowing smile, Paul moves forward.

 



IV. Then

In hindsight, Paul’s return to the road isn’t entirely surprising. He’s never been good at staying in one place too long. Even in a desolate environment, the desperate need – the itch deep in his bones – to keep himself busy, to keep his mind from falling idle, is impossible to ignore.

Over the years, especially the year and a half he spent at Hilltop, he’s become accustomed to doing these things alone. The silence was always a welcome reprieve from the nosy people at Hilltop that seemed to have a recycled list of problems that they always went to Paul to sort out.

Alexandria, however, operates on an entirely different level. Alexandria is systematic and democratic whereas Hilltop was forced to surrender to Gregory’s cowardice up until recently. Under Maggie’s control, he imagines that Hilltop has flourished much like Alexandria has.

The only problem he has with Alexandria is a recent one. It’s the reason why he’s sitting in the passenger’s seat of a Subaru that could desperately use a wash with Daryl at the wheel.

Unlike Hilltop, Alexandria doesn’t allow him to go out on runs on his own.

“We go in pairs,” Rick had told him.

Logically, it makes sense. Because it’s far too easy to get yourself stuck in a precarious situation out there – and it’s a whole lot worse when you’re out there by yourself.

Sometimes, unfortunately, logic isn’t enough to sway him. In this case, he’s still silently fuming. Because he’d rather not have something go wrong and someone else, Daryl in this case, have to carry that weight. It’s a burden that is too heavy for many to bear. And he knows the archer blames himself for what happened to Glenn – hell, Paul blames himself for their group ever getting mixed in with the Saviors because without him, without Hilltop, Glenn and Abraham would still be alive.

And he’d prefer to avoid something like that happening again, at all costs.

The prospect of dying has never scared him. It’s what he’ll leave behind that does.

“Yer awfully quiet,” Daryl eventually mutters as he weaves the vehicle through a highway littered with walkers and abandoned cars.

“Could be because I don’t have much to say.” Contrary to popular belief, he doesn’t talk at all hours of the day. Most of the time, he’d rather be tucked away with a good book.

“Heard what you an’ Rick talked about,” Daryl continues.

“It doesn’t bear repeating,” he mutters. “Look, I get it – it’s the way you guys do things around here. But I’m perfectly capable of protecting myself. I’ve been doing runs by myself for years and the worst I got was a twisted ankle. I think I’ll be fine.”

“M’not sayin’ you can’t protect yourself,” Daryl practically snarls. “I know ya can. But shit happens. ‘Member when you got slapped upside the head by the truck door – you woulda been walker bait if we weren’t there.”

He wouldn’t have been knocked out by the truck door if Daryl and Rick hadn’t chased him. The van full of food wouldn’t have fallen into the lake either.

Paul doesn’t feel like fighting, so he bites his tongue. He leans against the window, propped up on his elbow, watching the scenery pass by. Unfortunately, it’s mostly rotting bodies and crumbled leaves.

The rest of the ride is silent but for the occasional groan from outside.

 



The convenience store is small in comparison to the ones he used to search. But the smaller size typically signifies that it was passed up more often than not. Thus, he’s the one to tell Daryl to slow down – they’ll search here. They’ve got enough daylight to make a pit stop. It’ll take ten – twenty minutes at most.

When they get out of the SUV, weapons raised, they find only a few stragglers. Three of them no longer have functioning legs, plastered to the ground while they desperately reach for anything within sight. The other two are slow-moving and Daryl takes them out with ease.

He’s seen Daryl use his crossbow a good number of times but he still hasn’t gotten used to seeing him pull an arrow from a walker’s head. Even now, it makes his stomach swim unpleasantly. The blood isn’t what gets to him – because he wouldn’t last long if it did – but the revolting wet crunch the arrow makes whenever it’s yanked from bone does take his mind to places he’d rather continue to forget.

This time, he forces himself to look away. The sound, nonetheless, remains unchanged.

The windows are surprisingly intact. When he peers through, he sees a shelf that doesn’t appear completely desolate. Instantly, a small block of bright colors captures his attention. Probably snack food, but a bag of chips is better than nothing. Unfortunately, he’s too far to get a good look, but the glimpse alone is enough to make him search for the door.

“S’locked,” Daryl says, gesturing to the heavy chains wrapped around the rectangular handles.

Paul considers just breaking one of the windows, but decides against it when he recalls the abundance of noise they heard on the way here. The dead travel in herds and what he heard in those woods sounded a lot like one. It doesn’t take much to attract them.

“Guess we’ll just have to find another way in then.” He glances to his left and finds what looks to be an alleyway next the store. Perhaps, there’s another door – a back entrance.

He doesn’t think.

He just goes.

That proves to be a disastrous mistake.

He finds the other door with ease, stationed inches away from a large ill-smelling dumpster. And he quickly realizes that it’s unlocked because the knob twists beneath his fingers. He can hear Daryl catching up with him and turns to the archer with a wide grin on his face.

The words die on his tongue.

Pure horror. That’s the only way he can describe the look on Daryl’s face in that moment. Paul’s stomach curls in on itself, and he can feel the bile rising in his throat within that split second because he knows.

But he doesn’t have enough time to react when bony fingers reach for his jacket and jerk him back. Teeth sink into his left bicep like a steel lock and Paul can’t hold back the terrified yelp that escapes his lips. Oh, God, he thinks, it hurts. It hurts more than he thought it would, like a thousand needles puncturing his skin in unison – but the pain is short-lived because Daryl lurches forward, hunting knife in hand, and thrusts the tool right into the walker’s skull.

Paul stumbles back, holding his arm. Watches helplessly as Daryl stomps his boot into the walker’s head again and again, until there’s nothing left but a trail of tissue and blood. He can’t feel his feet – he can’t feel anything but his goddamn arm that burns like a thousand suns.

“Daryl,” he manages to stutter out. Daryl doesn’t seem to hear him. But Paul can still hear that sickening crunch echoing in his ears.

His mind registers that Daryl’s mouth is moving – cursing up a storm, but the words don’t quite sink in. He bears witness to a thousand emotions opening up right in front of him, like a floodgate that he can’t hope to close.

“Daryl,” he says again, louder this time.

Finally, Daryl stops. His head turns to him, eyes wide, red, and glassy, before he takes a shaky step forward. His hands hover close to him, but never touch. As if Daryl doesn’t know what he can and can’t touch. What he should and shouldn’t do.

“We…we can cut it off,” Daryl suggests, voice hoarse. He sounds so lost that it makes Paul’s heart sink. “It worked – before.”

No, he immediately thinks. He’d probably succumb to blood loss because Daryl doesn’t know anything of substance about first aid. Neither does Paul.

Without a tourniquet, he’d bleed out right here within the hour.

“Lemme see,” Daryl says, pulling gently at Paul’s good hand.

His arm aches. But Daryl’s eyes grow even wider when he looks at Paul’s hand. And then he’s clawing at Paul’s coat with a desperation he’s never quite seen before, brows knit together and lips pursed in a firm line as he pushes the garment down Paul’s shoulders. The sleeve of his shirt is shoved as far up as it can go before a warm, callused digit runs across his bicep, making him flinch. There’s no blood on Daryl’s hand when he pulls back.

Paul feels his neck straining with how fast his head snaps down, searching for any sign of blood on his skin. There isn’t a tear of skin. There isn’t a speck of red. All that’s on his arm is a nasty bruise that will probably bloom by tomorrow.

“Holy shit,” he breathes out. “Holy shit. It didn’t break the skin.”

He’s not a dead man walking.

The relief is brief because before he can say anything more, he hears a groan. And another. And another. It takes him a second too long to remember the herd, to panic – but Daryl’s instincts kick in. He yanks Paul into the convenience store, through the secondary entrance Paul had just found, before shutting and locking it behind them.

There’s a large, heavy box with some sort of machinery inside it that Daryl hurriedly pushes in front of the door. Meanwhile, Paul looks back out to the windows, towards the trees and sure enough, he can already see the more able-bodied walkers appearing from the forest.

Paul scans the room, looks for a way out or, at least, for a place to hide. There’s a door in the back. He prays to whatever god that's listening that this one isn’t locked.

“Daryl, come on,” he says, urging the archer away the makeshift barricade.

The door isn’t locked.

Paul is the one to practically slam the heavy door shut behind them, reassuring that the lock is in place before taking a shuddering breath. Daryl’s chest is heaving as well – and he begins to pace around, impatient. Like a live wire ready to snap.

The room they’re in looks to be the leftovers of a storage area. The shelves are stacked, more organized than most stores nowadays, and when he wanders over and checks a box, he pulls out a bag of Doritos.

All this for a bag of fucking chips. He opens it and can’t help but find the irony of it all – because the chips are completely and utterly tasteless and stale.

He crumbles it up and drops it back into the box. If he can’t enjoy, he might as well leave it for the ants. They certainly aren’t picky.

“We’ll stay in here for awhile,” he says as he scopes out the otherwise barren room. “They’ll lose interest in us…eventually.”

He turns back to Daryl when the silence lingers on for too long. The man has stopped pacing, but his expression is twisted into something that makes Paul’s blood freeze in his veins. The last time he saw a look like that was when Daryl beat one of the Saviors over the head with an iron rod.

Daryl’s entire body goes rigid, like something feral and vicious, ready to explode at any given moment. He stomps two paces closer, stops when he’s towering over Paul.

“I can protect myself, huh?” Daryl snaps, making Paul wince – because Daryl’s voice is too loud. “By what – gettin’ yer arm ripped off!”

“Keep your voice down,” Paul says through gritted teeth, but Daryl clearly isn’t listening.

A finger jabs roughly against his chest. Paul stumbles back a step. The last thing he wants right now is a fight. There are too many variables, too many things that can go wrong while they’re trapped in here.

“I ain’t keepin’ nothin’ down! We wouldn’t be in here if it weren’t for ya runnin’ off like a dumbass!” Daryl’s yelling now, his voice breaking, echoing off the walls. If the walkers hadn’t heard them before, they definitely heard them now.

“Daryl, I’m–”

Two hands push roughly at his chest, shoving him back. Paul nearly crumbles to the ground, grimacing at the shot of pain running up his arm as he barely catches his footing. He wraps a hand around his aching limb, swallowing down the frustration.

This isn’t the place to lose control, he tells himself.

Anywhere but here.

The guilt is palpable, clear on Daryl’s face. Like the anger just melted off and the rest of it hit him upside the head. No matter how much Daryl tries to hide it, it has become painfully clear how deep the archer’s emotions run. He is human, just as everyone is, but Paul has seen these sorts of people again and again – the ones that bury everything under layers and layers of anger, resentment, and callousness.

“If I don’t care, it can’t hurt me.”

No, Paul thinks, it still hurts.

Daryl inhales sharply, pivoting on his heel until his back faces Paul. For a moment, Paul wonders if he’s going to run, take his chances with the walkers, but he never progresses towards the door. Instead, he quickly drops himself to the floor, hunched forward slightly, one leg out in front of him and the other tucked against his chest. Paul can’t see his face, but he can see the quiet tremors in his shoulders.

Wordlessly, Paul steps close, taking a seat on the cold, dirty floor. He brings his knees close to his chest, lays his aching arm against them, waiting for the pain to dwindle down to a mere whisper. Carefully, he leans back, until his back is against Daryl’s. He can feel every tremor, every shaky breath, everything.

His hand slides against the tile, inching back smooth and quiet until his fingers bump against Daryl’s. He hesitates, giving Daryl a chance to pull away, but the archer never does. So, Paul takes a chance and lays his hand over the other man’s, feeling the bones of his knuckles and a dozen tiny scars against his palm.

And then Daryl’s hand moves. Paul thinks he’s pulling away at first, but he feels warm, callused fingers wrapping around the side of his hand, dipping through the gaps. Pulling. Holding tight. Paul presses his fingers back, taking a deep breath of his own before he looks up to the lone window situated at the ceiling.

The sun smiles down at him.

 



V. Now

“I’ll come by later,” Daryl had told him. Apparently, Tara had asked if he could cover her shift at the gate sometime during the day. Whatever date plans Paul had mapped out were basically left on the back-burner.

Paul isn’t upset.

Unexpected things do come up and disrupt plans, more often than not it feels like. Still, laying in bed – even with one of the books brought here from Hilltop sitting within his hands – he can’t help that twinge of loneliness that grips his chest. The blankets are cold no matter how long he stays beneath them, and he has too much legroom. It reminds him of before, when he would fall asleep to nothing but the groans of the undead outside, or when he would hear the quiet murmurs of the townspeople just outside his trailer, wondering if it’s too early to wake him.

Here, in Alexandria, all he hears is silence.

It’s unbearable. Stifling, even.

He doesn’t have a clock in his room, so he doesn’t know what time it is when his eyes begin to slip shut. The only thing keeping him company in his dreams is the starry night sky that sits open and welcome.

The thing is, in the new world, it doesn’t take much to jolt him awake. Fear is second-nature to him, so primal and basic that he has already begun to forget what life was like without it.

“Sorry,” a familiar voice rasps when Paul jerks up.

Daryl is staring down at him, The Great Gatsby held firmly in his right hand. There is an amused glint in his eye.

“No, it’s fine,” Paul manages out. His throat feels scratchy – God, he hopes he isn’t coming down with something. “Must’ve fallen asleep.”

The bedside light is still turned on, supporting his assumption. Paul flops back down on his pillow with a tired groan. He rubs a hand over his eyes, hoping the motion will ease the exhaustion from his bones. Unfortunately, he can still feel himself slowly drifting off.

Daryl doesn’t say anything. He places the book next to the lamp before he takes a seat on the edge of the bed. Paul notices that his hair is hanging down in damp strands. Without a word, he reaches up and runs his hand through those wet locks. His hair is colder than he would’ve thought.

“Rained on me out there,” Daryl explains after he notices Paul’s curious gaze.

“Last of the season, hopefully,” he says with a small smile.

Daryl scoffs. “Doubt it.”

Paul hums and lets his hand drop back down to the mattress.

“So much for date night.”

“Tomorrow,” Daryl tells him.

“Can’t, I’m helping Eric with inventory,” Paul reminds him. Something clicks in his head. “Oh, I forgot to tell you, Aaron invited us over for dinner. Said I’d check with you before I made any promises.”

“They cookin’?”

Paul snorts. “Of course.”

The last time Paul attempted a meal from scratch he nearly set his kitchen on fire. Needless to say, cooking had never been his calling in life. Unfortunately, it’s a lot less easy and convenient to survive on microwaveable meals alone these days.

“So, wanna go?”

Daryl shrugs. “I guess.”

“I’ll RSVP in the morning, then,” Paul teases with a growing grin. He then tugs at Daryl’s vest. “Now, take these wet clothes off and get into bed. There’s stuff in the bottom drawer you can borrow.” He nods at the wooden bureau just a few feet away.

Daryl mutters something under his breath, but he climbs to his feet without delay and pulls off his vest and then his tattered button-up. The scars stretch and coil with every twist of his upper body and Paul averts his gaze, knowing full well that Daryl wouldn’t appreciate the staring.

The drawer is pulled open with a clattering knock and out of the corner of his eye, he sees Daryl pull out something black. The archer turns to him with an odd look on his face.

“Stealin’ my shirts now?” There is a simple black T-shirt being waved between Daryl’s fingers, two sizes too large to be Paul’s.

“Maybe,” he answers. To be honest, there are a few of Daryl’s shirts scattered amongst his own clothes – not including the one he talked Daryl into giving him after the older man ruined one of Paul’s.

Daryl shakes his head with a scoff and tugs the garment over his head, pulling the thin fabric over his scars. The sweats he chooses, however, are clearly Paul’s because they’re too snug against his hips and too short on his ankles.

“You could always sleep naked, you know,” Paul reminds Daryl as he climbs under the covers. “I definitely wouldn’t mind.”

“Of course ya wouldn’t,” Daryl mumbles. He lays an arm over their heads, stretched across the pillow, beckoning Paul close. Paul complies without a single complaint, rolling into Daryl’s side with ease. An arm rubs over his clothed back, coming to rest just below his ribs.

“Turn the light off,” Paul says as he closes his eyes.

Cloth and muscle stretch beneath his cheek as Daryl reaches over and switches the simple lamp off, allowing the bedroom to sink into a familiar darkness.

This time, though, Paul isn’t cold.

 



VI. Then

The knock on his door comes as an unexpected surprise. He wracks his brain, trying to piece together who it may be only to come up with more questions than before. Paul sighs, folds the towel he was using to dry his hair over his shoulders, and pads to the front door.

There, on his welcome mat, stands none other than Daryl Dixon.

Admittedly, Paul’s brain short-circuits because this was the last thing he ever expected. The last time he and Daryl even held any sort of conversation was shortly before his near-death experience. That had been nearly a week ago.

Paul doesn’t want to know how long he stood there, slack-jawed, like a dying fish gasping for breath.

“Hey,” Daryl eventually mutters, breaking the silence. Daryl isn’t meeting his eyes, staring at something over his shoulder instead.

“Um,” Paul stutters with wince. “Hi.” He notices that Daryl’s hair is damp and that the man’s worn clothes have similar droplets staining their normally dry surface.

How long did Daryl stand out there?

“Come in,” Paul says when he finally gets his wits back about him. “I’ll get you a towel to dry off with.”

When he returns to the living room, he sees Daryl standing awkwardly next to the end of the sofa, like he’s unsure whether or not it’s appropriate to take a seat. His crossbow is situated on his shoulder, and Paul can’t help but wonder if he came straight here after his watch.

“Here.” Paul tosses him the towel and Daryl catches it with ease. He mostly uses it to dry his hands and his face. Paul snickers to himself, because there is something unmistakably humorous about this whole situation.

“So, why’d you come by?” Paul comes out and asks.

Daryl shrugs, once again averting his eyes.

Paul wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being a mostly one-sided conversation. Daryl has never been a talker, even when the time calls for it.

Wordlessly, he ambles to the kitchen to keeps his hands busy. He doesn’t think rambling on about nothing in particular is an attractive option to Daryl – it would probably do more harm than good. But standing there, saying and doing nothing, sounds even more gauche.

“How’s yer arm?” he hears Daryl finally ask.

“Fine,” he answers back with a small smile. “Just a little bruised, is all.”

Is that why Daryl’s here? He is…worried about Paul?

“Sorry for yellin’ at ya back there,” Daryl says after a long-winded pause.

This time, Paul’s hands freeze. He is pretty certain that this is the first time he has ever heard Daryl apologize. The first time he’s seen the man look quite so guilty – since their war with the Saviors, at least. Did he think…?

Daryl looks down at him when Paul stops at his side. There is an undeniable flutter in his chest and Paul does his best to shove that down. Unfortunately, that feeling only increases ten-fold when he places a hesitant hand on Daryl’s clothed arm. It feels warm and solid beneath the pads of his fingers. Daryl doesn’t pull away.

“Sit down, Daryl,” he says, keeping his voice light. “You’re making me nervous standing here in the corner. Do you want a glass of water or anything?”

Daryl stares at him quietly.

“Nah,” he finally grumbles, stepping forward and away from Paul’s hand. He takes an abrupt seat on Paul’s sofa.

Paul eventually follows suit and sits in one of the recliners. For the first time that night, he feels self-conscious. Daryl is sitting across from him looking like something ripped out of a magazine while Paul still has wet hair, a stained shirt with a hole in its hem, baggy sweatpants, and bare feet. It’s quite a contrast that would’ve been funny in any other scenario.

He can’t even remember the last time he felt this way.

There is a deck of cards on the coffee table that sits between them. They’re not his – because those ended up being yet another casualty of war, probably somewhere on the forest floor – but he did find this deck in one of the house’s drawers shortly after he made himself at home. He never actually thought about using them until now.

“Wanna play?” he asks, nodding at the deck.

Daryl follows his gaze and shrugs halfheartedly.

“Don’t got nowhere else to be.”

 



VII. Now

Going on a run without Daryl had been difficult. By difficult he means that it was incredibly exasperating to try and convince the archer that he could protect himself just fine. Daryl’s concerns were valid by all means, but a simple run less than five miles from Alexandria wasn’t the most likely to spell out his demise. He hadn’t even gone alone – Tara and Aaron both tagged along. He wasn’t completely defenseless and just as he expected, he returns to Alexandria unharmed but for a single scrape on his elbow.

The first thing he does is return home to take a quick shower and wash out the walker grime that splashed into his hair. He shakes out the excess water with a towel before he ties the messy strands back into a bun, where they won’t drip on every surface imaginable.

Daryl isn’t waiting for him at his house, so he takes that to mean that Daryl is probably sulking in his own home. Paul makes sure to take Daryl’s favorite brand of whiskey with him before he heads towards Daryl’s residence.

There is a commotion coming from within the rickety walls that he hears as he wanders up to Daryl’s door. Every hair on his body stands up on end. He finds himself closing in on quick feet, practically slamming his fist into the wooden slab.

“Daryl?” he calls out. There is a hint of panic in his voice that he doesn’t even stop to consider concealing.

A million different possibilities run through his head. An intruder certainly couldn’t have gotten through Rosita without some sort of warning being issued. Walkers haven’t snuck through in ages. But someone could’ve passed away inside and turned. How would they have managed to get inside of Daryl’s house though? Why would it have even been a struggle? Daryl always carries that big hunting knife in his boot.

The door opens without preamble and Paul nearly stumbles face first. He manages to regain his footing and finds Daryl staring down at him with an odd expression. Dare he say, Daryl looks…sheepish.

“Hi,” he says, dumbly. He chews on his lower lip. “What was that noise?”

Daryl stiffens. “Nothin’,” the man answers far too quickly.

Paul raises an eyebrow. “Nothing, huh?”

He waves the bottle of whiskey, mostly as a diversion now. “Brought your favorite.”

Daryl still seems nervous. He’s shut the door behind him and won’t meet Paul’s prying eyes for more than a few seconds, which is weird to say the very least. At this point, Daryl would have let him inside by now. That’s how this normally goes.

“You holding out on me now, Dixon?” he inquires with a teasing lilt. “Got a mistress I don’t know about?”

It is a simple joke, something he blurted out without thinking it through. Based on Daryl’s mildly horrified expression, he guesses that the archer found it much less humorous.

“No,” Daryl practically snaps.

“Sorry,” he says almost immediately. “It was a joke.” Albeit, not a very good one, but a joke nonetheless.

Daryl doesn’t appear impressed in the slightest. Paul takes a step forward and plants a chaste kiss on Daryl’s cheek, hoping it’ll placate him a little. Daryl doesn’t shove him away.

“Can I come in?” Sometimes, straightforward is a bit more effective. Paul figured out pretty quick that Daryl isn’t a fan of any sort of trickery, wicked or playful.

Finally, Daryl opens the door, motioning for Paul to go through. Nothing appears out of the ordinary at first. He kicks off his shoes as Daryl shuts the door again and steps towards the den.

When Paul’s eyes finally notice the wooden mess on the floor, he freezes. It isn’t complete, but it is rather obvious what the structure is going to be.

A bookshelf.

Daryl is building him a bookshelf.

“Is this the project you’ve been working on?” Paul asks – because he remembers when Daryl mentioned he was busy with something after Paul asked why he couldn’t come to dinner a handful of times.

“It didn’t come with instructions,” Daryl tells him instead, bringing his thumb to his mouth. “Woulda been done earlier if it had.” There’s a pause. “It was missin’ a piece, too.”

The first thing he thinks is that he loves it.

And then, I love you. It is a quiet echo in the back of his head, but it screams louder than thunder in his ears.

That revelation hits him like a ton of bricks. He loves Daryl Dixon with every fiber of his being and that thought is absolutely terrifying. Love in this world, where everything gets torn away at the flip of a coin, is something that has become both temporary and permanent, a strength and a weakness. People come and go and there’s very little any of them can do about that. The walkers, the bad people – brutal like the Saviors, savage like the Wolves, and cowards like Gregory – aren’t ever going to become a thing of the past.

They’ll always exist.

People are transient in a world like this.

Love, however, is anything but. It endures, even in death.

Paul has lost people before. Everyone has, of course. Merely daring to think about losing Daryl – just the bare idea of waking up in world without that wonderful man – makes his mind nearly tear itself apart stitch by stitch.

As he’s come to realize, he can’t picture what his life would be like without Daryl in it. Somehow, while Paul wasn’t looking, Daryl had wormed his way close – took down Paul’s hidden but guarded walls one inch at a time, until he wrapped himself around every aspect of Paul’s existence like a warm blanket.

A wise man once said that existing is easy, but living is hard. Finally, Paul thinks he knows what that old man meant when he uttered those last words. Living with the possibility of losing everything that you hold dear – it’d almost be easier to not care at all.

But when he looks at Daryl, the red flush across the bridge of his nose, the anxious twist of his mouth, he’s helpless to that feeling engulfing his chest. The sheer power of it, how quickly it takes hold, almost reminds him of drowning. He knows he can’t fight it. He knows that he doesn’t want to.

“I love it,” he tells Daryl.

I love you, he can’t quite say. Not yet.

But he will. One day, he’ll tell Daryl those three little words.

Just not today.

“Thank you.”

Daryl smiles, the barest upturn of the corners of his lips. He looks relieved.

It sparks something in Paul’s gut, and the sensation travels down his spine like a fast-spreading virus. It makes him feel like maybe, just maybe, everything will be okay.

Paul puts the whiskey down on the kitchen counter before surging up to meet Daryl’s lips halfway. Those strong hands wrap around him, warm and safe, and hold him there until he’s fighting for oxygen.

He pulls away first, and rests his forehead against Daryl’s. He waits until he feels like he can breathe again, lets those fingers wander beneath his shirt to scrape down his back, leaving a trail of delicious heat in their wake.

“You wanna take a break?” he asks.

Daryl doesn’t get any more done that evening.

Instead, he presses another soft kiss to Paul’s lips. There are a thousand words put into that simple motion, most of which Paul doesn’t quite understand. But, there isn’t a doubt in his mind that Daryl doesn’t feel the same about him – at least in some capacity. Daryl wouldn’t be here, kissing him gently, if he felt differently.

“Bedroom?” Paul speaks up when he shifts back. His lips feel bruised and tingly, almost numb.

His fingers are tightly wrapped in the collar of Daryl’s flannel, threatening to tear the buttons from the seams. He doesn’t want to let go. Not ever, he thinks as he rises up on his toes to drag his teeth against Daryl’s jaw. Beneath his ministrations, he feels Daryl’s skin practically vibrate, hears a rough curse leave Daryl’s lips. It goes straight to his groin.

Together, they stumble their way up the staircase, breathing hard against one another. The wood creaks beneath Paul’s feet, beneath the weight of Daryl’s boots, but he can barely hear it over the thundering roar of his own heartbeat.

Paul feels himself being pushed against the wall the second they reach Daryl’s bedroom, not hard enough to hurt, but it is enough to snatch the remaining oxygen from his chest. Not long after, Daryl bends back down to slot his lips against Paul’s, licking into his mouth. Paul kisses back, shoves his hand into Daryl’s hair and yanks – the way he knows Daryl likes – earning a surprised gasp from his partner. Daryl moves from his mouth to his neck, the scrape of his teeth rough against the smooth skin there. Paul knows it’ll leave a mark or two.

Daryl’s hand pushes beneath his thigh, silently commanding. Paul follows his lead and wraps one leg around Daryl’s waist, feeling a familiar hardness brush against him. And then Daryl is tugging at his other leg and Paul pauses.

“Sure you can hold me up?” he asks. It comes out much weaker than he intended.

Daryl pulls back, frowning.

“Not that old,” he mutters back.

Paul stares him straight in the eye as he raises his other leg and folds it around Daryl’s waist. The man holds him up, Paul’s shirt lifting an inch or two against the wall, but he never feels himself wobble.

“Shit, that’s really hot,” Paul blurts out without thinking.

The smirk that slowly stretches across Daryl’s lips is absolutely fiendish and Paul can’t help but lean forward and kiss him again. And again. And again. Until his lungs feel like they’re about to pop from the lack of air.

He doesn’t know how long he’s against that wall, kissing Daryl’s mouth until the man’s lips are bruised and tired, grinding against him slow and leisurely. The heat begins in his gut, growing and rising up like a winding vine, coiling around everything in its wake.

Daryl pulls back. “If ya keep that up, I dunno if we’ll make it to the bed.”

“Then take me to bed, Prince Charming,” he says with a laugh.

He expects Daryl to let him down, pull him to the bed by hand, but he finds himself being twisted and turned, so quick that it takes him off guard. They crumble against the bed, tangled against one another, not quite willing to let go. Daryl has him caged in against him, fingers sneaking up the front of Paul’s shirt, palm flat against his skin as Daryl drags it up Paul’s abdomen, coming to rest against his chest.

“Fuck,” he stutters out.

Paul manages to push Daryl back long enough to sit up and pull his own shirt up over his head. Daryl has seen him undressed countless times but he somehow seems surprised every time, eyes blown wide and lips slack. His gaze darkens as his eyes take it all in, as he closes in on Paul, slowly pushing him back down against the mattress.

Those soft lips close in on his clavicle; drag down by the teeth until he is pressing them against Paul’s nipple. His thumb comes to rest on the other, rubbing at the little nub.

“Shit. Daryl,” he gasps out when Daryl thrusts up against his thigh. Daryl kisses down his abdomen, his confidence seeming to swell more and more with every little twitch and moan. His hands grapple with Paul’s belt and it takes Paul a moment to realize what exactly is happening.

He props himself on his elbows. Admittedly, he’s still catching his breath.

“Daryl?” The archer glances up at him. “Are you sure?”

While Paul has done this countless times – to Daryl and others over the years – Daryl has not. The fact that Daryl has taken any initiative shocks him. He still remembers quite clearly how shy and timid Daryl was their first few times. How his fingers would shake. Paul had to lead him through it, had to show him where he liked to be touched and kissed, where he could put his hands.

“Yeah,” Daryl answers, voice rough like sandpaper as he pulls Paul’s belt through the loops agonizingly slow. And then the button snaps – Paul knows this because he hears it. Feels Daryl’s hand wrapping around him–

He collapses back down with a shuddering gasp, clutching the sheets between his fingers. Daryl begins tugging at Paul’s jeans and he shifts his hips up, allowing Daryl to drag the layers from his legs. He lets Daryl return to the V between his thighs, eyes falling shut when a warm breath fans against his cock.

“Dunno what to do…” Daryl tells him, sounding unsure for the first time. His lips close over the tip, hesitant but hot all the same. Fingers wrap around the base, just holding him there. Paul does his best to keep still.

“Just…hollow your cheeks,” Paul manages to stammer out. “Less teeth – yeah, like that. Oh, fuck.” He sees spots in his vision when Daryl finally takes him in his mouth. Both hands comb through Daryl’s hair as the man rises up for a moment only to swallow him down into that wet heat a second later.

His legs tremble, knees knocking against Daryl. He raises his head just long enough for Daryl’s eyes to find his own and watch, helplessly, as Daryl takes him down into that wet heat again.

“Oh, God, Daryl.” His gut coils into something tight and familiar. “M’gonna come.”

He pulls at Daryl’s hair again, more urgent than before, beckoning him up. Daryl releases him with a wet ‘pop’, frowning as Paul takes his face between his hands.

“Was it bad?” Daryl asks. “You didn’t…”

“No, it was good,” he reassures him quickly. “Really, really good.”

Paul presses a kiss to Daryl’s lips and tastes himself. When he pulls back, Daryl is still wearing a worried expression. Like he thinks he did something wrong.

“Still wanna ride you,” he reminds him. He kisses the column between Daryl’s ear and shoulder. “Wanna come on your cock, baby.”

“Fuck,” Daryl says, voice a low rumble.

Paul begins working on the buttons of Daryl’s shirt while the man mouths at his neck again. Teeth work against the tendons lining his skin, growing more and more impatient with every passing second. Paul can feel his own mind growing hazier as well, close to ripping Daryl’s shirt off as his fingers shake against the crooked line of buttons. Eventually, he undoes the final button on Daryl’s chest.

Daryl shrugs the garments – the shirt and the vest – off with ease. He is still sucking marks into Paul’s skin, so Paul lets his own hands wander. Down Daryl’s broad chest, over his sculpted arms, down the back that he knows is scarred.

His fingers find Daryl’s belt and slips it off without preamble, letting it tumble to floor with a loud ‘clack’. He lightly shoves Daryl away before he reaches into the drawer, where he knows Daryl keeps everything. Sure enough, the bottle of lube and the box of condoms are lying there in the corner. He tosses them on the bed.

“Want you to do it,” he tells Daryl as he lies back and spreads his legs again.

One thing he has learned over the course of their six months together is how good Daryl is with his fingers. There have been a handful of instances where Paul came on Daryl’s fingers alone, and nothing else. He should’ve known, he thinks. Daryl is always sucking on them.

Daryl opens him up nice and slow, kisses him through the uncomfortable stretch. He waits until he has three fingers sliding in and out with ease before he finally leans back and unbuttons his jeans.

“Take ‘em off,” Paul says as he sits up.

It isn’t until Daryl is standing there before him, naked, cock straining against his abdomen, that he tugs the man back to the bed and directs him to lie against the pillows. Paul straddles him, grabs the condom, and rolls it over Daryl’s leaking prick. He swathes a layer of lube over him before he strokes him once, twice – leaving Daryl to scramble helplessly beneath him.

Paul sinks down slowly, taking him in inch by inch, watching with wide blown eyes as Daryl’s mouth drops open. Daryl bottoms out and the stretch, although not painful, is initially uncomfortable.

“Give me a second.” He rubs a hand over Daryl’s stomach, feeling the man’s heaving breaths stuttering beneath the pads of his fingers. Daryl’s hands come to rest against his hips. He can feel the archer’s fingers trembling.

He shifts, knees planted on the mattress, hips moving slowly and carefully, eyes glued to the archer’s face. Daryl twitches beneath him as Paul rises up. When he sinks back down, he hears Daryl gasp. The man’s fingers grapple at his hips, desperate for some sort of leverage, some means of control.

Slowly, he finds a rhythm. One that makes Daryl frantic and restless, one that makes him curse and makes Paul gasp when Daryl’s cock finds that spot inside him. His whole body shakes, legs nearly buckling beneath him.

“Oh, shit, Daryl. I…I can’t.”

Paul leans forward, grips the headboard with clammy fingers, lets Daryl bend his knees and slam up into him. The bed creaks loudly with the movement, cracking against the wall. Daryl rocks against him, hitting that spot again and again, until Paul feels himself quickly coming undone.

Daryl pushes him away and slips out of him, leaving Paul feeling incredibly empty. His head rolls into the pillow as Daryl shifts their positions and wraps Paul’s legs around his waist. He steadies himself and slowly pushes back in. It doesn’t take him long to hit just the right angle – the one that makes Paul see stars. His thighs only clamp tighter around Daryl’s waist, trying to pull him even closer.

He can feel himself getting close as he grapples with the sheets and practically yells out Daryl’s name, as Daryl leans forward and licks into his mouth. Daryl’s large, callused hand wraps around his cock and strokes him in tandem with his thrusts, until Paul feels like his spine is about to break in two, until his vocal chords feel like they’re going to shatter.

Paul comes with a shout, the arch in his back almost painful. The heat is powerful and overwhelming, flowing through him until every muscle in his body feels like goo. Until his mind becomes a pleasant, white slate.

Daryl strokes him through it, still rocking into Paul unsteadily. He’s close, Paul thinks. Daryl moves against him erratically, thighs trembling against Paul’s knees. Paul raises a weak leg and loosely drapes it around Daryl’s back, heel pressing into the man’s tailbone, urging him on.

He can tell when Daryl comes because the man’s mouth always goes limp and the same raucous groan slips past his lips. A sound Paul always seems to hear in his dreams now. The archer doesn’t pull out right away. Instead, he eventually slumps against him, face resting in the crook of Paul’s neck.

They are both still struggling for air, heaving against one another, but Paul comes down first. He combs his fingers through Daryl’s hair, placing fleeting kisses against his head until Daryl finally rolls off him.

“Oh my god,” he breathes out.

He hears Daryl snort next to him. Paul rolls his eyes and smacks him lightly on the chest before turning on his side. Daryl’s head is angled towards him. His hair looks like a storm blazed through it, but there’s a glow to him that wasn’t there before. Paul imagines that he doesn’t look much different.

A thumb gently pulls at his lips. Paul meets Daryl halfway this time.

Paul doesn’t go home that night. Daryl’s bed is too warm and comfortable for him to even consider moving. The man in question is pressed against Paul’s back this time, breath fanning against the nape of his neck. The hand resting against his waist is limp and dormant, but that doesn’t stop Paul from tangling their fingers together.

Is that place really home, he wonders that night before he falls asleep. Or is home wherever Daryl is?

 



VIII. Then

It feels odd to go from blatantly avoiding someone to nearly being attached at the hip to said person. A couple rounds of gin and whatever reservations Daryl had about him must’ve evaporated overnight. That’s the only way Paul can explain why, less than two weeks later, they’re sitting together up on the watchtower, beneath the vibrant autumn sunset.

A whiff of smoke meets Paul’s nose every now and again, each time Daryl lights a cigarette and takes a drag that dissipates with the wind. He is comfortable, he realizes. The tension between them feels like nothing more than a distant memory now, replaced by something that Paul can’t quite pinpoint.

He isn’t stupid. He doesn’t deny the way his skin tingles whenever Daryl so much as pats him on the shoulder to get his attention. And he definitely can’t deny the flip his heart does when he’s on the receiving end of one of Daryl’s stares – the ones that aren’t snarling and angry, or practically daring him to make one wrong move. No, it’s the looks he gets when Daryl doesn’t think he notices, drawn long and nearly hidden beneath a mop of hair. The ones where he is quick to chew on his thumb when Paul finally turns his head.

From an objective standpoint, Paul has considered it. Hell, the thought first popped into his head when he was sitting on Rick Grimes’ staircase with a half dozen guns pointed at him. He took a good, long look and Daryl and thought, well, he does have nice arms. Pretty eyes too, he decided when he was sitting at a table with two familiar faces and a variety of new ones staring at him with blatant distrust and wariness written all over their expressions.

It wasn’t until they were at war that he wondered if Daryl even liked men. Something told him that even if he did, he was probably so hiding so deep in the closet that not even face-eating zombies could coax him out. Paul remembers telling himself that it would probably be too difficult to pursue, too messy and possibly detrimental to the partnership between Hilltop and Alexandra (and yes, he has a tendency to sometimes be melodramatic). He hammered it down in that traitorous little brain of his that it was easier this way.

And then he got to know Daryl. Saw how loyal the man was, how strong and brave he could be even under the direst of circumstances. How he’d put himself in the face of danger just to keep his friends safe – and that eventually grew to include Paul. The first time an arrow came between him and what he calculated to be a fatal shot in the matter of moments, he remembers the absolute silence in his head when Daryl came charging through the trees.

Very few of the people at Hilltop would’ve done that for him. People who he’d known for years…and yet a man he hadn’t known for more than a month was willing to risk his life for him. It was something out of a fairy tale, regardless of how the archer would react to such a notion.

And now, he thinks as he takes in the contours of Daryl’s face out of the corner of his eye. Now, he can’t help but wonder what it would be like to fall asleep with those strong arms holding him. What it would be like to kiss him. How Daryl’s hands would feel against his skin…

“What?” Daryl is looking at him with an amused glint in his eye.

He realizes, probably a second too late, that he was staring. The heat that rises in his face is too potent for him to conceal.

“Nothing,” he says. Terrible answer, completely transparent. Shit.

Thankfully, Daryl doesn’t push it. For once, Paul’s actually grateful for the archer’s apparent aversion to conversation.

It isn’t out of the realm of possibility, he decides as Daryl exhales another trail of smoke. Daryl was freaked out about what happened outside the convenience store, enough to make him break down. So, he can safely assume that Daryl cares about him in some fashion. More than he used to, at least.

However, going from the assumption of platonic friendship to something more is essentially too outlandish for Paul to accept without question. Too big of a jump to make based on what little evidence he actually has. Unfortunately, there is that tiny part of him that reminds him how subtle Daryl is. He will never get a big declaration of love from Daryl, not that he ever expects that to happen.

Frankly, he’d be less surprised to see a talking walker than Daryl doing anything like that.

It does mean Paul has to take note of the little things - because the little things are about as straightforward as Daryl is going to be. He knows it falls on him. If he wants to see if this could go anywhere, he’d have to make the first move.

Regardless, it is a huge gamble. The only thing he can safely assume is that Daryl wouldn’t beat the ever-loving daylights out of him. Daryl is friends with Aaron, who he knows is gay, and he remembers Aaron once mentioning that he and Eric had Daryl over for dinner sometime before. So Daryl isn’t one of those ‘exterminate the gays, they’re a menace to society’ sort of guys which, in Paul’s defense, isn’t an unusual sentiment in the Deep South. He also doubts that Daryl would completely disown him and abandon the peculiar semblance of friendship they have. At worst, things between them would become incredibly awkward for awhile – and Paul would probably need a new watchtower partner.

He dares a quick glance in Daryl’s direction. Such a simple movement still makes his chest flutter with nerves. God, he feels like a teenage girl with a crush on the homecoming king or something. It’s embarrassing.

Well, if he’s going to do anything, it should be something on the milder end of the scale. If he straight up planted one on Daryl, he’d probably find himself in a world of hurt on the ground. That drop alone would definitely break a few bones. The stragglers ambling along the perimeter of the gate would be absolutely thrilled.

Mild it is then.

Paul carefully shifts closer to Daryl, making sure he doesn’t take the archer off guard. Daryl gives him an odd look when their shoulders brush lightly. The motion sends a bolt of lightning through his tired bones.

“It’s getting cold out here,” he says as a means of explanation. It’s a lie, obviously. Daryl knows it too by the way his face scrunches up in response. Then again, the thick leather coat he’s got on probably doesn’t help sell his cover story.

However, Daryl doesn’t pull away.

Even through the layers of cloth, he can feel the heat pouring in, making his head swim in pleasant circles. It could be subzero right now and Paul doubts he’d notice it at all.

They sit like that, side-by-side, until the sun has nestled beneath the horizon line.

Tara and Rosita relieve them of duty not longer after dusk settles in, thus, cutting Paul’s experiment short. The walk back is short and muted but Paul notices that Daryl wanders closer to him, their arms bumping against one another from time to time.

“You don’t have to walk me all the way back, you know. I’m a big boy,” Paul teases when they reach his porch, which is one street down and a right turn from Daryl’s own home.

“Whatever you say,” Daryl mutters back, clearly unconvinced.

He nearly says goodnight and heads in, but stops short of opening the door. He turns back around, where Daryl still hovers uncomfortably next to the wicker chair.

Paul opens his mouth but can’t find the right words. Instead, he stands there for a few moments, wondering if the ground could swallow him whole just to save him from his growing embarrassment. Daryl is still watching him, fingers toying with the strap of his crossbow, growing more skittish by the second.

Sometimes though, actions speak louder than words.

He swallows his nerves down and takes a step forward, until he’s nearly chest to chest with the archer. He bites down on his lower lip – and he certainly doesn’t miss the way Daryl’s eyes hone in on the minute movement. Even in the dark, he can see the red stain on Daryl’s skin.

“Can I…?” He chokes for a second. “Can I try something?”

Daryl doesn’t move away. He doesn’t say yes. He doesn’t say no. Paul thinks it’s consent, but he wants to give Daryl all the time he needs if he decides that this isn’t something he wants. (Admittedly, Paul is waiting for the moment to come). So, he reaches up and flattens his palm against Daryl’s cheek, pushes back a few stray hairs from his face and waits.

Yet, Daryl remains as still as a statue. He isn’t running away, and Paul can’t help but think that it’s a sign of something good. Of something that might just be real.

Slowly, Paul pushes up – not having to stretch much because Daryl is only a few inches taller than him, and closes the gap between them. By definition, it’s merely a peck. He slots his lips against Daryl’s, angles his head to side, hoping for some kind of response. Any sort of indication that tells him ‘hey, I’m into this too’.

At first, Daryl remains motionless against him, stiff as a board, and Paul considers pulling back. However, a second later, there’s something. It’s light and hesitant, but it’s something. It becomes increasingly evident that Daryl doesn’t have much experience in this area, not that Paul’s surprised, because his lips are too rigid and dry and his hands are clumsy against Paul’s hips. Daryl’s fingers don’t quite make their way around him; they just seem to hover there uncertainly.

Paul stops himself from taking it further – because Daryl might actually punch him in the face if he tried anything with tongue – and slowly draws back. He lingers close, his hand still cupping Daryl’s cheek, giving Daryl a chance to come to terms with what just transpired.

Daryl just stares down at him. His expression is hard to read. The flush now adorning his cheeks, however, is not.

“This okay?” he finally dares to ask.

He can see Daryl swallow, watches the bob of his Adam’s apple as the archer grapples for an answer. Those fingers finally come to rest against his hip, the grip so slack Paul barely feels it.

“Yeah,” Daryl answers. His voice is deep, more gravelly than before.

Paul releases the breath he was holding, a smile tugging at his lips as his hand falls to Daryl’s shoulder. He chews on his lip, considers it.

“Did you want to come in?”

He feels Daryl’s hand stiffen against him.

“We don’t have to do anything,” Paul quickly adds. “We could just…talk.”

“Talk?” Daryl echoes flatly.

“Contrary to popular belief, Daryl, I actually like hanging out with you.”

Daryl scoffs. His hands drop back down to his sides, much to Paul’s disappointment. He half-expects Daryl to take off down the steps, but the man remains rooted in place.

“If you don’t want to–”

“Nah,” Daryl cuts in. “I want to.”

Paul blinks. “Oh. Okay.”

Real smooth there, Rovia.

“You gonna invite me in or are ya just gonna stand there all night?”

That makes him nearly double over, unable to hold in a quiet snicker. Even in the throes of embarrassment, Daryl is still…undeniably Daryl. The archer takes a retreating step back, but Paul reaches out and grabs him by the wrist, reeling him back. Daryl lets him.

“Hey, I ain’t letting you run off on me now,” he tells him, still breathless. His sides ache now, but it’s a good ache. One that he hasn’t felt in ages.

“C’mon.” Paul tugs on his wrist again, using his other hand to open his front door. “I’ve got a bottle of that whiskey you like so much.”

 



IX. Now

The only reason he manages to slip out of Alexandria without a familiar shadow at his side is because Rick is still gone and Alexandria needs every skilled soldier they can get until he returns. Initially, he had planned this trip with Daryl included but changed his mind not long after, citing Rick’s absence as his main concern. The words that came out of his mouth weren’t entirely truthful, not that he’d willingly admit that.

However, the moment the gates part for him and he spots Maggie Rhee standing near Barrington House, wearing a smile that warms him to his toes, he forgets his worries.

At Hilltop, forgetting comes easy. It always has. The people here have a lackadaisical manner about them, too anxious to be akin to the Kingdom’s civilians but not carved with a hundred sharp edges like the folks in Alexandria. Here, he finds himself greeted with bright smiles and fresh fruit before Maggie tugs him up and away from the sporadic festivity.

Baby Hershel is small, smaller than Paul anticipates when he first lays eyes on him slumbering in his crib – the one Daryl helped make while he stayed at Hilltop for a few weeks following Negan’s defeat. The infant has Maggie’s nose and hair, but everything else reminds him distinctly of Glenn.

“He’s a handful,” Maggie tells him softly, peering over his shoulder.

There is not a trace of sorrow on her face anymore, not like there was when she used to stare down at her growing belly with a pained expression. He remembers how it wasn’t until things slowed down that reality seemed to set in for her – that Glenn wasn’t coming back. A handful of times he found her sitting next to Glenn’s grave, shoulders trembling. Those were the times he forced himself to walk away so that she could grieve for her husband in peace.

Today, however, she exudes nothing but pride and joy. Her green eyes glow bright and lively, as they had when she first met Doctor Carson.

The pocket watch that was found in Glenn’s pocket is propped up against the bureau, next to a picture of Maggie holding newborn Baby Hershel. He supposes that Enid gave it back – or gifted it to Baby Hershel – sometime after he left.

“Babies usually are,” he says with an amused huff.

“S’pose that’s true,” she agrees. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, though.”

“No. Guess not.”

She gets him a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and they settle in what used to be Gregory’s study. It’s Maggie’s now, he reminds himself.

“So, how are things back there?” Maggie asks him not long after she takes a seat at the desk.

“The same,” he answers. “Trading with the Kingdom is going well. The Saviors have been…behaving themselves.” That’s a word for it, he supposes. “Father Gabriel wants to start a school for the kids.”

“That’s good to hear.” Maggie leans back and exhales, body sagging in relief. And then she smiles, crooked and uneven. “What would he even want to teach?”

“I have no idea,” he admits with a bark of laughter. “I doubt Algebra would be of any use now.” Or world history. Or literature. He can’t really think of anything that he learned in a classroom that he’s actually implemented since the world turned on its head.

“Maybe survival classes,” Maggie suggests. “The basics, at least.”

“I’ll pass that idea on then.”

“Good.” There is something undeniably unsettling in the way she smiles at him now. “So, s’pose I should just get on with it and ask. How are things with Daryl?”

Admittedly, Paul nearly spits his drink out at her. He ends up practically coughing up a lung instead, desperately trying to take a breath. Maggie just watches him with that keen stare of hers, assessing him silently, like she’s sizing him up.

“How…?” he manages out. He doesn’t recall ever telling her about that. And Daryl hasn’t been at Hilltop in months.

“Let’s just say a little bird told me.”

That narrows it down to Tara and Rosita. Knowing his luck, he wouldn’t be surprised if it was Tara. She always had a knack for nosing around his private life.

“Things are…good,” Paul tells her earnestly. “Really good.”

“I’m happy for you – both of you.” She folds her hands on her desk. “For awhile, I was worried ‘bout him, y’know? I know he blames himself for what happened.” She inhales sharply. “No matter how many times I told him it wasn’t his fault, I could tell he didn’t believe me.”

Paul remembers that too. How angry Daryl was for the longest time. How he lashed out at anything and everything. How he stopped talking – to Maggie, to Tara, to Rick – at one point. It was during those times that he found Daryl not too far from him. Probably because he knew Paul wouldn’t ask about it.

He never did, either.

Daryl never talked about it. He moved on, at a snail’s pace to be precise – but Daryl came back, nonetheless. He went on a few runs with Tara; let the girl joke around with him even if he didn’t understand all of her references. He resumed his attendance to weekly get-togethers at the Grimes household, returned to being Rick’s right-hand man.

But he rarely came to Hilltop – stopped facing Maggie unless he had to. He could tell that it hurt Maggie – and Daryl too. He never met Baby Hershel either.

“Yeah, he’s doing better,” he reassures her. “He’s cracking jokes again.” And Paul makes sure to try and make Daryl smile whenever he can.

“That’s good to hear.” Her response is genuine enough, but her cheerful expression seems forced. Sad.

“I…” he pauses, reconsiders telling her, but steels himself through it. “I think I love him, Maggie.” He shakes his head, eyes falling to the smooth wood of the desk situated between them, fingers trembling as they grip the fabric of his pants.

“No, I know I do.”

“Have you told him?” she asks him softly.

“I’ve tried, believe me.” His voice breaks. “I just can’t seem to get the words out.” They feel stuck in his throat, like a lump he can’t quite swallow. “It’s…”

“Scary,” Maggie surmises. He looks up at her. “I know it is. It was like that…” With her and Glenn, he silently concludes.

“But it was worth it. Every second I had with that man…” Her eyes are glassy now, but she’s still smiling. “I wouldn’t change a single thing – even now.”

Even knowing how the story between her and Glenn would end, Maggie doesn’t regret a single moment of it.

“I know it’s terrifying, loving someone like that. But, you can’t let fear stop you. Because if somethin’ happens, you’re gonna spend the rest of your life wondering ‘what if’.”

“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” A quote succinctly pieced together by Alfred Lord Tennyson passes through his mind. How fitting, he thinks.

He forces himself to consider the possibility of losing Daryl. He thinks about how much it would eat away at him if Daryl died without knowing that Paul cared about him so deeply that it physically hurt.

Even if they only had a little time left on this earth together, he’d much rather spend it open and honest with the love of his life. He wants to spend the rest of his days making Daryl smile in whatever way he can. He wants to kiss Daryl until he can’t feel his lips anymore. He wants to keep going on those little runs to the store to pick up seemingly useless knickknacks that Daryl knows means a lot to the people in Alexandria. He wants to wake up to that familiar face asleep in his bed, next to him, holding him close. He wants to kiss every scar again and again until Daryl finally believes he isn’t broken, that he is good enough.

“I’ll tell him,” he reassures her. “When I get back, I’ll tell him.”

Maggie smiles at him. “I’ll hold you to that, then.”

 



He isn’t all that surprised to see Daryl waiting for them – for him – at the gate. Tara is the first out of the truck, making a beeline for Rosita. Aaron is out next, finding his husband in the small crowd gathered around. Finally, Paul jumps out of the truck and finds Daryl standing a good distance away from the small congregation.

Daryl doesn’t like public displays of affection – to no one’s astonishment. Paul is lucky to get a shoulder bump if Daryl is in a good mood that day. Most of the time, he receives a nod as acknowledgement. Or, when no one’s looking, a warm smile that is reserved for Paul alone.

Today, however, he pushes his luck and wraps his arms around the surly man’s middle when he reaches him. Daryl doesn’t push him away, although he does stiffen against him almost immediately. Eventually, though, Daryl drapes an arm around his back and holds him there.

“What brought this on?” Daryl asks him quietly as Paul, reluctantly, pulls away.

“Just missed you, is all,” he answers.

He isn’t lying, at least. He definitely did miss the archer’s presence while he was gone. But he supposes, in a way, he’s trying to work up the nerve – the courage – to say what he needs to say. To finally tell Daryl what he should’ve told him ages ago.

“C’mon,” Daryl says with a huff that sounds more amused than irritated. There is a fresh color of red decorating the bridge of his nose now. Daryl plants a hand at the small of his back and nudges him forward, and Paul follows the other away from the crowd, back into the clean streets of Alexandria.

Daryl leads him to his own little tattered home. The bookshelf has already been completed, situated against the wall in the living room. It’s mostly stocked now, although Paul still isn’t really sure why they didn’t just lug the completed project back to his house – where a majority of his books currently lay in messy, haphazard piles. At the time, Daryl seemed more than happy to have it propped up as the only sign of life in his otherwise dusty home, asking Paul to bring whatever books he wanted with him the next time he visited.

And Paul, well, he didn’t want to push the subject. He already had a toothbrush and a good portion of his clothing intermixed with Daryl’s, either folded in his bureau or hanging up somewhere in his closet. Moving a few books to Daryl’s residence made enough sense in that respect.

When Daryl opens the front door, Paul is almost immediately greeted by a strong, familiar scent. He stops, pauses, and turns back to Daryl with wide eyes.

“Is that duck?” he asks.

“Hunted it this mornin’,” Daryl tells him instead.

“On purpose or…?” Because Paul remembers mentioning that he had a craving for duck a few days before he left for Hilltop. It was just a passing comment and nothing more.

Daryl doesn’t answer. He averts his eyes, blush running down his neck now.

Paul merely smiles, places two palms on Daryl’s tepid skin, and presses a chaste kiss to the man’s lips.

“Thank you,” he says.

He feels the archer’s anxiety melt beneath his fingertips, barely having enough time to suck in a breath before Daryl descends upon him, all tongue and teeth. Their noses bump, until Paul twists his head just right. His eyes flutter shut when Daryl’s tongue moves against his own. For a moment, he considers letting Daryl have his wicked way with him right there, outside on Daryl’s porch where anyone can see.

But, there are a few other things Paul had in mind – although sex was still on the list, just a little further down in the evening (and on a bed).

“Daryl,” he whispers after he shifts an inch away. “Mrs. Whittaker is staring right at us.”

Daryl’s expression furrows and sure enough, when Daryl glances over his shoulder, his elderly neighbor is indeed looking at them, seated on her rocking chair on the porch with her knitting tools in hand.

“Let’s go inside.” He nudges his elbow lightly against Daryl’s ribs. “‘Sides, we wouldn’t want the food to get cold, would we?” Paul teases when Daryl turns back to him.

Paul goes ahead into Daryl’s house and hears Daryl trailing close behind. He unlaces his boots and slides his beanie off his head, already slipping one arm out of his coat when he reaches the living room.

“Let me find a better change of clothes.”

Daryl nods, a bit stiff, cheeks still tinged pink as Paul ascends up the staircase, to Daryl’s room. He chooses a simple white button-up and jeans to slip into.

Daryl is waiting for him in the dining room when he returns, standing awkwardly next to the table. Paul expects a simple layout – a plate or a bowl of something featuring duck, and maybe some mashed potatoes – but once again, Daryl completely exceeds his expectations.

He doesn’t recognize the prim, beige tablecloth stretched across the wooden surface. He also doesn’t recognize the marbled gray printed table cloths that are placed in front of two chairs situated across from one another near the table’s middle. The china plates and wine glasses aren’t new – but they had always lain in Daryl’s cupboards gathering dust because Daryl never had seen a good reason to use them. However, the most astonishing piece that Paul never expected to see in a million years has to be the candles positioned at the center of the table, next to the bottle of wine he remembers once seeing at Aaron and Eric’s.

Admittedly, he’s flabbergasted. He can’t even conjure up a single word to say. Every second that ticks by seems to make Daryl squirm even more, where he stands next to the table, still dressed in a tattered black flannel and denim vest with the familiar pair of wings stitched to the back.

“When you said you hunted a duck, I have to say, this is not what I was expecting,” he finally comments – when he manages to pick up his jaw off the floor.

Daryl gnaws on his thumb. “Eric said you’d like somethin’ like this.”

Well, that’s one way of putting it he supposes. That also explains why there is a very well-made looking bowl of spaghetti sitting next to the cooked duck.

“It’s a surprise – a good one,” he corrects before Daryl can second-guess himself. “But you can’t say you like something you’ve never done, right?”

“Huh?” Daryl’s hand drops back down to his side.

“Never had a guy make me dinner,” he tells him. He’s been taken out to dinner before, but nothing like what sits in front of him right now. The fanciest treat he’s ever had was at a three star seafood restaurant where he ended up blowing the chef after the fact. (He never heard from the guy after that).

“Pricks,” he hears Daryl mutter.

And then the archer is stepping forward, pulling a chair back, looking at Paul like he’s waiting for him to do something. It takes Paul an embarrassingly long time to figure out what Daryl wants him to do.

“Such a gentleman,” he teases as he takes a seat.

The meal itself is much more informal. It feels much more routine, similar to how they typically eat meals together. Some chit-chat, shared updates about Alexandria and Hilltop (though Paul elects to bring up Maggie another time), and a couple of jokes that are enough to make Daryl smile – if even just a little.

He helps clean up the dishes, sees Daryl blow out the candles out of the corner of his eye while he puts some of the leftovers away in the fridge.

Daryl still tastes like wine when Paul leans up to kiss him. They don’t quite make it to the bedroom this time. Instead, Paul begins working at his neck, sucking and biting at the junction between his throat and shoulder. Daryl’s hands brazenly come to cup his ass, kneading the skin there. Slowly, Daryl pushes him close – and Paul feels something hard and familiar against his thigh. He grinds against him for a few moments; eagerly taking in that desperate little gasp Daryl can’t quite stifle.

Paul sinks down to his knees, right there in the kitchen, and brings his fingers to the button of Daryl’s jeans. The man above him watches him with impossibly blue eyes, a quiet groan escaping his lips when Paul finally pulls him out. He glances up, meets the archer’s hazy gaze as he leans close and licks up that vein running along the underside of his cock. Daryl cards a hand through his hair, pulling at the loose strands with quivering fingers.

“Like that?” he asks, sitting back on his knees, one hand still jacking him nice and slow. He can already feel his own pants becoming too tight.

“Ya talk too much,” Daryl tells him in return. His voice isn’t rough in the same way as it usually is – no, it’s softer, practically breathing the words out. The fingers in his hair tug at his head impatiently.

“Thought you liked my voice?” As soon as the question leaves his lips, he bends down and licks at the precum already pooling at the tip. The groan that reverberates above him sounds absolutely wrecked.

Paul takes in just the tip of him, tongue swirling at the head before he sucks it down. A moment later, he pulls back, taking a breath as he strokes him faster. Daryl squeezes his eyes shut, one hand wrapped around the edge of the counter, white knuckled, while the other is still tangled against his head.

Daryl’s grip in his hair feels tight enough to have already ripped out a few strands, only yanking even harder at his scalp when Paul finally takes him all the way down. The head of Daryl’s cock nudges the back of his throat.

“Fuck,” Daryl groans out. The archer’s hips stutter against him, nearly making him gag, but he does his best to keep the man against the counter, one palm planted against his hip. In his hair, Daryl’s hand shifts, now seeming to hold his head in place rather than trying to pull him forward. Nails scratch at his scalp as he slides down his cock again and again, as his chest grows tight and uncomfortable.

Eventually, Paul pulls away again, breathing hard. He licks down the length of Daryl’s cock, down to the man’s surely aching balls. Daryl lets out a sharp breath, pushing his head closer.

Paul swallows him down again, feeling the slight jerk of Daryl’s hips, but only for a short time because Daryl begins tugging at his head.

“M’close,” he tells him when Paul finally draws back.

Paul brushes his hair to one shoulder, out of his face, before he slides his mouth back down. He hastens his pace, taking him as far down as he can before Daryl’s hand clamps down around the nape of his neck, a gruff but winded curse pouring out of lips as he comes down the back of Paul’s throat.

He swallows it down, the fingers against his scalp going slack. When he sits back and looks up, he sees Daryl practically bent back against the countertop, trying to catch his breath with little success. Then again, Paul can still feel his own heart trying to dig its way out of his chest, beating so hard that Paul wonders if it possibly could.

Paul stands up on wobbly knees, and that’s all it takes for Daryl to reach out and grab at his hips. For a split second, a gust of cool air hits the bottom of his feet as Daryl picks him up off the ground.

Wordlessly, Daryl drops him on the countertop. Paul spreads his legs, giving the archer space so that he can step between them. Daryl brings both hands to his face before he kisses him right on the mouth. As their tongues twist together, one hand drops down to his crotch, fingers nimbly undoing the clasp to his pants.

“Goddamn, Daryl,” he gasps out against the archer’s lips.

“Lift up,” is all Daryl grunts out in return, tugging at the coarse material still wrapped around his hips. He does so, allowing Daryl to pull his jeans and his boxer briefs down to his ankles, where Paul kicks the garments off with ease. His aching skin is left vulnerable against the cool surface of the countertop. Before he can think too long or hard about that new observation, the archer is back in his space, kissing him thoroughly until he’s hot all over once more.

Paul places his hands on either side of the man’s face, dragging his left hand back into Daryl’s hair. Daryl’s tongue is still in his mouth when his fingers close around Paul’s leaking dick. He gasps into the man’s mouth when those callused fingers begin stroking him painfully slow. That sinful mouth moves to the tender flesh of his throat, sucking roughly against the formerly unblemished skin there.

“I’m not gonna last,” he tells the archer.

Daryl merely bites down harder against his skin, until Paul wonders if there’s going to be a bruise he’s left to deal with later. The thought is transitory at best because Daryl’s hand and Daryl’s mouth are too good to ignore. He can already feel his balls tightening.

Paul pushes him back long enough to pull his shirt over his head, looping his hands in Daryl’s belt loops to tug him close again. Daryl’s hand returns, stroking him faster now, until a familiar coil begins to tighten in his gut.

“Daryl – oh, fuck,” he manages to stutter out before he’s coming fast and hard.

That evening – or has the sun gone down? – they lay in Daryl’s bed together, comforter pulled over their skins, ankles crossed against one another’s. It isn’t until then that he remembers, and the words finally sit dormant on his tongue. Daryl stares at him like he’s hung the stars and the moon, his callused fingers tracing unknown patterns into the back of his hand.

In hindsight, it is rather predictable that he figures out a way to stumble his way through what he wanted to be a sentimental moment between them. Instead of working up to it – like he should with Daryl, knowing how easy the man scares – he ends up blurting it out.

Like a child with no impulse control.

“I love you.”

The fingers stop cold on his hand. They don’t draw away though, and that alone is what stops Paul from nearly bolting from the bed, buck-naked. When he dares himself to look up, Daryl’s eyes are on him, studying him intently.

“You mean that?” Daryl eventually asks, voice rough.

“‘Course I do,” Paul answers without hesitation. It only takes a second for the nerves to return. “Just…wanted to say it, I guess. You don’t have to say it back if you don’t want. I don’t want you to feel like–”

“Paul,” is all that Daryl says to make him stop rambling on like a blithering idiot. Daryl reaches for his hand again, tugging him close and kissing his worries away.

“I love ya too,” Daryl reassures him when they pull apart, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Oh,” he says for a lack of a better word. And then he smiles, because it finally registers in his brain that Daryl Dixon loves him. This thing between them is something big and something real.

“Thank God.” He chuckles, breathlessly. And then he kisses Daryl again. And again. And again.

It isn’t until his eyes begin to feel heavy that Daryl shifts next to him and wipes a stray hair from his face. He opens his mouth, seemingly hesitant.

“Stay,” Daryl says.

His sleepy mind interprets that to mean ‘stay the night’ – which he was already planning to.

“I’m too tired to go anywhere,” he tells the archer, shutting his eyes again.

“No, I mean…” he hears Daryl sigh heavily.

He glances up at the man. Daryl won’t quite meet his eyes now. The word ‘stay’ files back through his mind, and he ponders what it could mean for a second. It doesn’t take long for Paul to fit the pieces together.

“Stay…as in move in?” Paul guesses.

Daryl chews on his lower lip. It makes Paul want to kiss him all over again.

“Yeah.” He sounds as nervous as Paul felt when he came back from Hilltop and saw Daryl standing there, waiting for him.

“Half of my stuff is already here,” he points out. But when he notices that Daryl is staring at him with a dubious look, it makes him pause. “I’d love to move in with you, Daryl.”

Most of the time, as he’s come to learn over the course of their relationship, straightforward and direct is a better communication approach with Daryl.

Paul shifts forward and Daryl loops an arm around his waist. He kisses the hard edge of his jaw, stays there until he feels the tension drain from Daryl’s body.

“We can get the rest of my stuff tomorrow,” he proposes. He grapples for Daryl’s hand, until he can entangle their fingers together and press a kiss to his knuckles.

“But, I’m redecorating the place,” he continues on. “It needs more…pizzazz.”

“Pizzazz?” Daryl scoffs.

“Remember when you said these houses were too big?” He doesn’t wait for an affirmation – he knows Daryl remembers. “Well, I think part of the problem was that this was just a house to you. Not a home. And I want this place to be our home, Daryl.”

He wants a home to come back to. A home where he can make new memories. A home that people will look at and know it’s his and Daryl’s – not just the old, rickety house on the end of the street.

He doesn’t want to exist. He wants to live. To thrive in a world they had to build from scratch.

“Yeah,” Daryl eventually rasps. “I want that too.”

 



“This is the last of it,” Paul says after he drops the last box. Compared to before, he doesn’t have that much. Clothes. Shampoo. Books – a lot of books. He remembers what moving used to be like, how they would need those large vehicles to carry everything for them. And now it merely takes two hands and a little bit of time to relocate.

Daryl stares down at the boxes, unimpressed.

“Where’s all this gonna fit?”

“We’ll make it fit, Daryl.”

Daryl snorts, but doesn’t try and argue with him. After all, Daryl is the one who wanted Paul to move in with him, into the house that was a third of the size compared to the place Paul was living in. If he was so worried about closet space, he should’ve thought that one through a little more before he insisted that Paul should come live with him.

Paul scrounges through the boxes one at a time, sorts the items out. Clothing. Bathroom. Book. Something else. In approximately the sixth or seventh box – he stopped counting – he finds the large book he had stuffed under his bed the first night he moved to Alexandria.

“What’s that?” he hears Daryl ask him.

He hesitates, hand smoothing over the dusty cover. He hasn’t opened this thing for what – years now?

“My family’s photo album,” he tells Daryl quietly.

He can hear Daryl’s boot scrape against the wood. Slowly, the man steps closer to him, staring at the old green book sitting between his hands. Daryl sits down next to him, shoulder to shoulder, quiet and patient. He knows he can decide that he doesn’t want to talk about it – knows that Daryl will let him stuff it back under a bed and turn a blind eye.

But part of him wants to talk about it.

“I went back,” he begins. “Maybe, three months after the turn. I lived in the city…they lived about fifty miles away in the suburbs, so getting there was absolute hell.” He remembers how big the herds were in the city, like nothing he’s ever seen out here.

“I was too late.” He remembers getting into his family home, looking for familiar faces. All he found were old memories. “They could still be out there – I never found…” He pauses, swallows down the knot in his throat.

“Ended up taking a few things. Cellphones – because I was foolishly optimistic, some clothes, and…” He taps a finger on the album cover. “I took this too. Photographs are pretty hard to replace.”

Daryl remains there, next to him, silent and listening, a sturdy foundation for him to lean on. He takes a shuddering breath and forces himself to flip the cover over, to open the box of memories he’s been so scared to revisit.

When he turns the page to see his parent's smiling faces, he inhales sharply. There’s a picture of his first birthday – of his fifteenth. There are pages dedicated to school photos and achievements (as far and in-between as they may be). He sees a few snaps of his prom, his horribly slicked back, over-gelled hair and garish red suit. There’s a photo of him in his cap and gown. He continues through the album, page by page, picture by picture, memory by memory. 

He feels his shoulders shaking, feels Daryl’s arm wrap around him comfortingly, but he perseveres until he reaches that first blank page.

“There’re some old picture frames up in the attic,” Daryl tells him when he’s done. “Could frame some of them if ya wanted.”

Paul wipes the wet tears from his cheeks and musters a nod.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I’d like that.”