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The Ballad of Darth Angel

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As the screams grew louder, Daryl drove himself harder toward the sound, thrashing through the underbrush, branches grabbing and scratching at his face, his clothes, getting caught in his crossbow. His lungs felt near to bursting, his legs burning by the time he exploded out of the woods and into the meadow. Suddenly, he had a choice to make—a young girl clung to the lowest branches of a big tree, dangling there like a ripe fruit to be plucked by the dead; three others he assumed to be her parents and older brother had run to a group of pines, the mother trying to shove the boy to safety while the father was fighting off a small herd of walkers with a big branch… and losing.

Aaron staggered up beside him, gasping for breath. “Shit… oh shit…”

Things looked fucking dire, Daryl couldn’t deny. Dozens of walkers poured out of the woods, advancing on the trio by the pines, and at least two dozen more were growling and swiping at the skinny little girl who swung, kicking, from the branch like a human piñata. They continued to stagger out of the trees, pouring into the clearing, too many to count. Any sane person would have turned around and snuck back into the shadows.

“I got the girl!” Daryl blurted, and yanking his knife from its sheath, he charged into the fray. He heard Aaron hiss his name behind him, calling him back, but he wasn’t about to turn around. Something in him desperately, violently wanted to save this girl.

He flew like a madman into the crowd of corpses, slashing and shoving and stabbing his way toward the tree where the girl hung. He hardly knew what he was doing; time slowed down, and everything seemed to flow… his arms, hands, legs moving like a perfectly oiled machine. There was no thought, only instinct—pure survival. He had no idea how long it went on: The girl still alive, still kicking, still screaming, and he still whirling and leaping and lunging towards her through the herd in a bizarre, gory ballet.

Aaron’s voice close by snapped him out of his altered state. “I’ve got your back! Grab her NOW!”

A gap had opened in the herd, and Aaron was picking off those still straggling towards them as Daryl reached the spot where the girl dangled. He flung his blood-splattered arms into the air. “I gotcha!” he cried, breathless. “Let go!”

“No! Mama!” she shrieked.

“Leggo NOW darlin’! Gotta be now! C’mon I’ll take ya to mama!”

The girl looked down at him, eyes wide with terror, and let go, falling into Daryl’s arms. The moment her little arms encircled his neck he lit out running again, on pure adrenaline, back through the narrowing gap in the herd, darting right and left, the child clutched to his heaving chest… back into the forest.

“Mama,” she sobbed, “mama... daddy…”

He couldn’t tell her that there was no helping mama and daddy. He couldn’t speak at all. He ran and ran until his legs finally began to shake and give out, and he tumbled to the ground, dropping the softly weeping child and his crossbow gently in the leaves, gasping raggedly for breath as he knelt there.

It all came rushing back… the hunt for Sophia, the terrible morning when the barn door opened and she came out. Carol screaming and thrashing in his arms. The look on Rick’s face when he shot the girl. The look on that bitch’s face when she shot Beth… Beth… The long black Cadillac driving away with Beth. Carrying her out of the hospital… she was so light and yet so heavy…

Daryl couldn’t breathe… couldn’t breathe at all…

“Daryl… Daryl… you ok? Come on, look at me.” Aaron grabbed his chin and turned his face. “Breathe… come on… take a deep breath with me.”

Daryl looked into his eyes, obeying, and tried to draw deeply. His peripheral vision was darkening. Aaron drew close, pressed their foreheads together, both of them on their knees, panting in the leaves. “Breathe with me,” he commanded, and Daryl tried. Despite his shaking, he began to calm a bit as they breathed together for a long minute, and the world slowly came back into focus.

The girl was still crying in the leaves, curled like a dead armadillo.

“’M ok,” Daryl whispered, and gently pushed Aaron away. “Help her out.”

 

***

They’d planned to host six in the RV that night, besides themselves, but the girl was sadly the only survivor of the group they had been watching for almost four days—including the time it took to go back for the RV. Daryl figured her to be seven or eight. She was thin like Sophia had been, and her arms and legs seemed so fine and brittle that he couldn’t believe she’d held onto that branch as long as she did. Her hair was reddish, dirty, and her skin pink with sunburn and spattered with freckles. Daryl reached out and teased a strand gently out of her face as she slept on the bed they’d made up for her. It was early evening, just growing dark, but the girl had fallen asleep as soon as they’d arrived here, exhausted from the day’s terror, grief and exertion. She hadn’t said a word since leaving the meadow. He couldn’t bring himself to leave her side.

Aaron brought him a bowl of microwaved soup, and he waved it away, but the man urged it on him, insisting.

“You have to eat. Stay strong.”

He sighed and took it, eating slowly while Aaron leaned against the flimsy wall across from him.

“That was amazing, what you did,” Aaron murmured. “Crazy and dangerous, but amazing.”

He pondered that, and it dawned on him that he’d put Aaron in a bad position. He wasn’t sorry, but he was goddamn glad he didn’t have to be.

He could feel Aaron watching him, studying him.

“Maybe I ain’t cut out for this,” he said softly, still gazing at the girl.

Aaron took his empty bowl away and came back.

“What is it about her?” he asked pointedly. “Why did you risk both our lives to save her?”

Daryl’s shoulders hunched defensively.

“Did you lose a little girl?”

He squeezed his eyes shut, let the air slowly out of his lungs, trying not to plunge back into the past. Trying not to get angry. “Lost more than one,” he replied, his voice full of gravel.

Aaron knelt in front of him, at the side of the bed. “Your own?” he asked gently.

“No. Ain’t got no kids. Carol’s daughter. Maggie’s sister.”

“You were close to them.” Aaron put his hand softly on Daryl’s knee.

Daryl’s throat suddenly constricted with emotion, and he was glad for the darkness, glad for his curtain of hair. “You ask a lotta fuckin’ questions,” he growled.

Aaron snorted a little, smiled gently. “I know I do. I gotta work on that.” He pushed himself to his feet again. “It’s almost dark. We’d better be heading home.”

 

***

The second time he stumbled upon them dancing together after a trip, he didn’t try to sneak away and pretend he hadn’t seen. He just stood in the shadows and soaked it in, let it wash over him. Lost himself a little. Some old R&B song played softly… seems like a mighty long time… and Aaron held Eric in the middle of the dark living room, swaying gently to the music. A dim light in the kitchen threw a golden beam across the floor, their feet shuffling in and out of it. Eric’s head lay on Aaron’s shoulder, his thumbs tucked into Aaron’s back pockets, his hands hanging loosely.

I’m so glad you’re here again…

Daryl let his head come to rest on the doorframe, let out a slow breath.

The song was almost over when Eric lifted his head and saw Daryl standing there. He slowly straightened up, took one of Aaron’s hands.

“Hey,” Eric said softly. “All done with the shower? Need anything else?”

“Mmm. Naw, I’m good. Thanks,” Daryl replied, standing up straight. “Sorry t’ disturb you.”

“You’re not disturbing us. We should include you somehow, it seems,” Eric said.

Daryl stood there blinking, unsure.

Aaron chuckled. “We have this ritual,” he explained. “Before a recruiting trip, we take turns picking a song. Then, when we get back safe, we put it on and have a little victory dance. Kind of our little celebration.”

They both looked at him, and he realized they were waiting for him to say something. Chewing on his lip, he managed a nod.

“Thank you, Daryl,” Eric said, his voice kind. “Thank you for bringing Aaron back safe again.”

Daryl looked from one to the other of them, their eyes shining in the semi-darkness, and shoved his hands deep into his pockets.

“He brought me back, too,” he said gruffly.

 

***

Daryl knew they talked about him. Saw their sly glances at each other across the table, when they thought he was focused on his meal. Heard their soft conversations when he was out in the garage, still cleaning and sorting and storing away spare bike parts into labeled bins. It was stupid stuff: How he’d look in Aaron’s blue shirt; who he reminded them of; how Eric hoped he’d take awhile longer to finish organizing the garage. He ignored them and pretended not to notice.

Tonight, Eric was openly whispering in Aaron’s ear at the table in front of him, and it finally got to him. “The hell’s the matter with y’all?” he griped, dropping his fork loudly.

Aaron turned to his lover and gave him an exasperated look.

Eric grinned sheepishly at Daryl. “So the talk around town is that you’re quite the superhero, and I was suggesting superhero names for you to try on.” He took another bite of garlic mashed potato and waved his fork in the air while he chewed and swallowed. “Aaron’s earlier suggestion was ‘The Green Arrow.’ But I said seriously, that’s already taken… and besides, it has to be something about the wings on your vest. Like ‘The Avenging Angel.’ But the one I’m really kind of digging is ‘Darth Angel.’ You know, like Dark Angel, but more badass. And kind of Star Wars, ‘cause that’s how I roll.”

Daryl glanced over at Aaron, who was just hanging his head and shaking it slowly, a little smirk on his lips. He looked down at his mostly empty plate, then back up at Eric, who was smiling hopefully at him. A sickly sort of panic rose in his chest, and he stood up suddenly, the legs of his chair grinding loudly on the kitchen floor. He grabbed his plate and cup. “That’s fuckin’ ridiculous,” he muttered, and turned from the table, dropping his dishes into the sink on the way out the side door to the garage.

 

***

“Do you remember,” Carol asked him, “how you acted at Hershel’s farm? How you went off by yourself and sulked and camped all alone for weeks? Even though you’d been trying so hard to help find Sophia?”

Daryl bounced Judith up and down, jiggling his left leg under her diapered butt while she smiled and drooled on his arm. He looked over at Carol from his perch on a stool at the kitchen counter; she was carefully washing the dinner remains off a bright yellow plate. Soft voices rose from the adjoining family room—Morgan and Michonne deep in conversation.

“Yeah. Why?” he replied.

“What were you thinking?” she asked pointedly.

“Thinkin’ y’all didn’t really want me around. That maybe I’d split.”

“And why did you think that?”

He pondered a moment, chewed his mustache. “Shane was an asshole,” he concluded.

“Mm, yeah, Shane was an asshole. Were the rest of us so bad?”

“No… but…”

“But what?” Carol stopped what she was doing and looked at Daryl hard. “What is it really that drives you away from people?”

He held her gaze, but found himself shrugging, shaking his head.

“I’ll tell you,” Carol said, sounding a bit exasperated. “You’re rejecting people, before they can reject you. Because you’re convinced they will reject you, and it will hurt. So you don’t want to give them a chance. You did it at Hershel’s farm, and you did it with most of the Woodbury people at the prison, even though they thought you were Batman with a crossbow. Sound about right?” She wiped her hands on her apron, then reached out and took Judith off his lap, propped the sleepy baby on her hip. Looked at him again for a response.

Daryl scowled. “Why you bringin’ this up now?” he asked.

“Because I haven’t seen you talking to anyone from Alexandria, besides Aaron and Eric,” Carol replied. “You seem to think they all dislike you. And because Eric spilled his guts to me a couple days ago. He told me how much they like having you around, how content you seem working in their garage, how much Aaron likes working with you. But he can’t figure out how he’s offending you, and why you keep walking away.”

He had to get some air. Walking the darkened streets aimlessly, Daryl stopped on his third time past the pond and leaned against a sycamore tree. He fished in his pockets thoroughly, but fuck if he wasn’t out of smokes.

The whispering of feet in the grass suddenly startled him, and he spun around to see Carl stepping out from the shadows in between two houses. He approached wearing a dumbass grin, and Daryl had an idea of where he’d been. Screwin’ around with that girl no doubt—and Rick screwin’ around too, or he’d be out looking for his kid’s ass by now.

Carl nodded at him in passing, still smiling. “Whassup, Darth?” he drawled.

“Git on home,” Daryl growled.

 

***

“I’m sorry, Daryl,” Katrina told him, trying to break it to him gently, “but she’s just too traumatized to see you right now.”

Daryl didn’t know what to say. He shifted from one foot to the other on the porch, shoved his hands into the pockets of his favorite tattered jeans, found a hole. Damn, that’s where the last two cigs went…

“So when can I see her?” he finally managed.

Katrina gave him a quick up and down glance and sighed. “She’s only been here a few days. She’s barely spoken a word. Give her another week, maybe.”

Same look, different town, Daryl thought. He narrowed his eyes, nodded, and turned to go, making it to the bottom of the steps before Katrina called to him.

“Hey, wait…”

He stopped and stood still, but didn’t turn around.

“I’m sorry, I know you brought her in. Maybe… maybe just try wearing something a little less scary when you come back. You know, comb your hair. She’s only a little girl.”

 

***

“So maybe third time’s the charm,” Aaron said as they shouldered their packs and weapons and walked away from the car and the motorcycle once again. Daryl eyed their surroundings—the outskirts of a small town, a few miles east of where they’d found the girl. The kind of place they’d passed through many times outside of Atlanta. Not too terribly many walkers, a few dozen forgotten houses and stores to ransack. People managed to hide out and lay low in such places for a while.

“We’ve never come back empty,” Daryl noted.

“True. But I’d prefer no elaborate booby traps and no heart-stopping rescues this time. And I’d like to bring back more than one person.”

“I hear ya.”

“We’re lucky they let us out at all, you know. Rick was pretty worried about these characters that assaulted Morgan. Maybe the same ones that set up the trap at the factory.”

“I still got a feeling, though,” Daryl replied. “Those two people who were with the little girl an’ her family may have split off. Could still be out here. They seemed to be traveling this direction. An’ if that woman was really a doctor…”

About the time the sun was high and warm, and Daryl’s stomach began to clench with hunger, he looked up from the railroad tracks and spied the perfect place to eat lunch. “Hey,” he said, nudging Aaron’s elbow. He pointed at the big oak tree behind the closest house. “Let’s climb up there an’ eat.”

The wooden boards nailed to the tree were thankfully still sturdy, and the two men were able to scramble up into the treehouse easily. Three-sided, open to the west, with a metal roof and solid construction, the structure was an excellent blind for watching the tracks and the houses below. They settled themselves, their packs and weapons on the pine floor and broke out their lunches: tins of tuna and stale crackers, Vienna sausages, apples, some sort of no-bake cookies that Carol had made them.

Leaning back on the walls, they both chewed thoughtfully and silently for awhile, until Aaron spoke.

“You ever have a treehouse?”

“Mmhmm,” Daryl replied with his mouth full. “Had a few. Not so nice as this. No kid built this one.”

“Probably not. I always wanted a treehouse. But we lived in the suburbs, and the trees were all too small.”

There was definitely something about a treehouse that made you feel like a kid again, Daryl thought. Memories came to him as he ate and stared off into the distance. Memories of a time when he still felt like a kid, when his mother was still alive, when he had friends that came by to fetch him and he felt free to run loose. A time when Merle was still at home, and bearing the brunt of the old man’s rage.

“Tell me about someone special to you when you were a kid,” Aaron said, out of the blue.

Daryl closed his eyes, answered without hardly thinking. “Mamaw called me Daryl Bob. She made the best cheese sanwiches ‘n pecan pie. Died when I was pretty young.”

“Daryl Bob,” Aaron repeated, and Daryl could hear a smile in his voice. “Your middle name Robert?”

“Jus’ Bob.” He fished in his pocket and pulled out a cig, just barely lit it up, flung the now-empty lighter down into the long grass.

“I had… have… a little sister,” Aaron told him quietly. “We were close growing up. She was in graduate school when this whole mess started. Out in California. Last I heard, she and her boyfriend were heading for the mountains to find a place to hole up.”

“Think she’s still alive?” Daryl asked, looking over at him.

“Don’t know. I like to think so…” Aaron met Daryl’s gaze, and held it for several moments. Daryl felt he could hear everything not spoken—how Aaron thought about the girl every day, wished he could be there for her, wished there were things he had or hadn’t said to her. Unfinished business. How the not-knowing was the worst thing of all. At least Daryl had been able to look for Sophia, to go after Beth…

“I’m sorry, man,” Daryl said, and reached out to touch his arm gently.

Aaron nodded and looked away quickly, but not before Daryl saw the tears that welled in his eyes.

Daryl laid back on the wooden floor, stubbed the butt of his smoke out on the wall. “You know what it’s like to lose people. Tell me somethin’. How can you love Eric, knowin’ you could lose him tomorrow? What would you do?”

Aaron sighed sadly. “I think about that a lot out here. That’s why I didn’t want him coming out anymore.  I guess I’m selfish—I’d rather die first, so I don’t have to deal with that kind of pain. But on the other hand, I do believe that old saying, ‘it’s better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all.’”

Fuck that old saying, Daryl wanted to say. Instead he just grunted. But when he let it sink in for a few moments, let Aaron’s words wash over him, he couldn’t deny that his time with Beth had left a lingering tenderness, even as it left a scar. Letting her in had broken his heart, but those cracks seemed to let his heart expand and grow somehow. Sorta like a crawdad or a snake splitting and shedding its old skin, he thought. Now that he was letting himself feel it, the new heart felt raw and soft and vulnerable, like he wanted to hide it from hurt… shove it under a rock for awhile… but it also felt very much alive.

They both sat quietly for a time, watching buzzards circling in the near distance. So many buzzards anymore.

“Tell me something,” Aaron said softly. “When we were trapped in that car at DelArno’s, why did you offer to get out and draw the roamers away so I could escape? Why were you willing to die for me?”

Daryl pulled his knife out, slowly began carving his initials in the wall next to him. “Wasn’t tryin’ to be no martyr. We had to try somethin,’ right? I guess…”

“You guess what?”

Daryl didn’t want to tell Aaron that he just thought he was the tougher one. And the one with nothing to lose. Couldn’t begin to tell him how he’d been both afraid that Aaron would die trying to follow him, and pleasantly surprised that Aaron was really that brave.

What came out was, “Guess I didn’t wanna lose you.”

 

***

He began to notice little things about Aaron as they walked together that afternoon, crouching in cover to listen now and then. Things like the way Aaron’s brow knit together and his lower lip pushed out into a little pout when he was concentrating. How fine and clean his fingers were, and how dexterous when manipulating the equipment. Aaron turned to look at him, caught him staring, and Daryl could only think about how the man’s big, soft eyes reminded him of a doe… lovely and warm, innocent yet knowing.

Aaron’s mouth quirked up into a bemused smile. “What?” he demanded.

Daryl kept his face blank, blinked back at Aaron just as innocently. “Nuthin,” he replied. “You remind me of somebody.”

Which wasn’t entirely true. Aaron was unlike anybody he’d ever known. But these feelings he’d begun having… these feelings put him in mind of somebody he’d known long ago, who he swore he’d never bring to mind again.

 

***

Cam O’Reilly was a friend of Merle’s, but not one of the lowlife deadbeats he’d run with since middle school. Merle met Cam working at a local gas station after he got out of the joint, and took to inviting him over for Saturday card games or just to hang out on Friday nights with the rest of the posse, drink cheap beer and smoke a few joints, maybe cruise around and pick up a local floozy or two. The first time Cam came over to the upper flat Merle was renting, Daryl had just moved his pathetic little pile of belongings in, finally breaking ties with the drunken old man, his hammer fists and slashing belt. He was 16, flunking out of school, circling around Merle and his friends for scraps of food and attention like a dog slinking around under the table at supper. While most of Merle’s friends would just as soon slug him as talk to him, Cam seemed to take a real interest in him.

“Hey pretty boy,” Cam grinned—he was always grinning—“what’s your name? You Merle’s brother? Hell, I see who got the looks in the family, Merle. Sure as shit wasn’t you!”

Cam had an infectious smile and was quick with a joke or a smoke. It was hard not to love him, not to want to be around him always. When Cam showed up, the party was on. Daryl never wanted to leave that party.

“Pretty Boy” stuck, and became his nickname around Merle’s crew. From Merle’s snarling lips, it was entirely derisive. “C’mon Pretty Boy, get lost, I’m tryin’ to get laid here!” he growled one sultry night from the broken sofa, some skanky tramp in his lap. Daryl slouched out of the living room, where the TV glowed day and night, and onto the porch, where Cam’s cigarette glowed in the darkness, smoke curling around his face. He turned to Daryl and smiled, winked, gave his blonde hair a ruffle. Katydids sawed away in the trees.

“Bum a smoke?” Daryl asked.

“C’mon downstairs,” Cam said. “Got a whole pack fer you in the car.”

Daryl followed him and they both slid into the front seat of Cam’s jacked-up Chevy Nova, parked in the shadows of the trees beside the house. Cam reached down between his legs and pulled the lever to slide the bench seat back. Then he reached up and pulled a pack of smokes down from their hiding place above the visor, and set them on the dashboard just out of Daryl’s reach.

Cam drew on his cigarette, blew a casual smoke ring or two at the windshield. Damn, Daryl wished he could learn to do that. As if reading his mind, Cam laughed and said “You wanna learn, dontcha?”

Daryl laughed too. “Pretty cool,” he said.

Cam stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray, and carefully pushed the tray back in. He looked at Daryl appraisingly. “I could teach you a lotta things,” he said. He laid his arm across the back of the seat, a hand coming to rest on Daryl’s shoulder, rubbing gently. “You like girls, Pretty Boy?”

Daryl shrugged. “Had a couple girlfriends… nothin’ special.”

Cam’s face lit up in a sideways grin. “I got somethin’ special.”

Cam did indeed have something special—Daryl had never laid eyes on such an enormous cock, except in Merle’s pornos. And when Cam suggested what Daryl could do to it, he didn’t flinch. He wanted to make Cam happy. Hell, he wanted that pack of smokes. And truth be told, he enjoyed doing it, even though afterwards he laid awake on his mattress on the floor for a long time, long after Cam had roared away and Merle had passed out, wondering what his brother would do if he found out, wondering if this made him a faggot, wondering if faggots really burned in hell. Wondering if Cam would let him do it again and finally jerking off into his undershorts, imagining he would.

Of course, he did. Cam took to coming around evenings when Merle was on shift at the gas station. He always brought gifts—cigarettes, joints, chewin’ tobacco, Coke, beer, maybe a couple pieces of cold, rubbery gas station pizza. Sometimes it was the only food Daryl got all day. Daryl would eat, or drink, or smoke, listening to Cam joke and gossip, and eventually Cam’s hands would be on him, gliding under his shirt, down his shorts. “C’mon,” Cam would grin, “Who d’ya love?” And Daryl would slide to his knees on the filthy carpet to show him.

One sticky August night, they were slumped on the brokeback sofa together, Cam wearing nothing but athletic shorts. Daryl liked the shape of his bare chest, admired the little trail of hair that ran down to Cam’s belly button and disappeared into his drawers. Daryl swallowed his last bite of greasy burrito, licked his fingers clean one by one. An old Three’s Company rerun flickered on the TV.

“Stand up,” Cam said lazily. Daryl dropped his paper plate and silently got to his feet, and Cam said, “Take them shorts off.”

Daryl obeyed, unsnapping and unzipping and dropping the cutoff shorts to his ankles.

Cam grinned, the sweat on his upper lip shining in the glow from the TV set. “Commando… I like that.”

Daryl snorted, flushing hot, uncomfortable being on display. He was glad to keep his t-shirt on, hiding the nasty scars on his back that had finally healed over during the summer. He didn’t want to explain them tonight.

“Turn around.”

He spun slowly to face the front window, looking out into the darkness, hoping that no one passing on the street could see him standing there illuminated and half naked. The sofa groaned as Cam stood up, and Daryl suddenly felt the man’s erection pressing against his ass, separated only by the thin nylon of Cam’s shorts. “Yer ass is almost as pretty as your face,” Cam murmured in his ear.

Next thing he knew, Cam had brought him to his knees on the sofa, the avocado-green upholstery like burlap against his bare skin. “Hold still, darlin’—this might hurt a little at first,” Cam told him. And it did hurt—a lot—especially with Cam only using spit for lube and not bothering to prepare Daryl first. If there was one thing Daryl was good at, though, it was gritting his teeth and bearing up under punishment, and that’s what he did, even though it felt godawful wrong and he thought Cam might tear him wide open. He kept his mouth shut, bit his lip bloody and held still. Soon enough it was over and Cam groaned loudly and pulled out, staggered back cursing. Daryl flopped over, stunned and trembling, stray tears running down his face from the smarting pain.

“Aw, honey, it wasn’t that bad was it?” Cam soothed, pulling his shorts on. He perched next to Daryl, reached out and put a hand on his bare hip. “You cryin’?”

Daryl wiped angrily at his face, tried to sit up but found that his ass was not going to cooperate. “Fuck no, I ain’t cryin,’” he snapped. “I’m good. It’s all good.”

“Good,” Cam said with a smile. “’Cause it sure was good for me.” He leaned forward and gathered his sweatsocks off the floor, shoved his feet into his sneakers, not bothering to tie them. He turned and winked at Daryl. “Yer a pretty hot little piece, Pretty Boy.”

Daryl watched him get up and head for the door, and suddenly felt a horrible aching need to make him stay. He jumped up, still half naked, and went after him, grabbing his arm just as he got to the door.

“Hey,” he pled, “Don’t go.”

Cam turned around and Daryl reached up and took the man’s stubbly face in his hands, pulled him close and kissed him. Cam looked surprised, and when Daryl went in for a second kiss, the man pulled back, then grabbed Daryl firmly by the shoulders and held him away.

“Uh-uh, now, Daryl, don’t be doin’ that,” Cam said gently but firmly. “Kissin’ is for lovers.”

 

***

It only took a few minutes to jimmy the lock open on the camper trailer, and the two men were inside, shaking the rain off. The interior smelled a bit musty, a bit mousy, but it sure beat smelling like walkers, Daryl thought. Rain splattered loudly on the windows, the wind blowing in gusts, shaking the whole vehicle. It was just starting to get dark outside. He really didn’t like sleeping inside these things, even if this one had been parked in this driveway a long time and the neighborhood had obviously not been disturbed. He still felt like a bug in a jar. Trapped. But the last three houses they’d tried had been full of living corpses and smelled like the bowels of hell, and they were just too tired to deal with any more of that shit.

He propped his crossbow against the wall and walked to the rear of the camper, opened a few storage bins, while Aaron checked the cupboards in the front. “Not much here,” Aaron reported. “Little salt and pepper, sugar, cooking oil… couple cans of tomatoes.”

“Breakfast o’ champions.”

Aaron sighed, hung his jacket up and sat down on the bench at the little table. He opened the box of cards sitting there and began to carefully shuffle. “Might be enough light for one game. Play Hearts?”

Daryl grunted affirmatively and joined him, and Aaron began to deal.

“Ya know, they wouldn’t let me see her yesterday.”

“Hmm? Who?” Aaron answered idly.

“Who ya think? The little redhead girl. Wouldn’t let me see her.”

Aaron stopped and looked at him. “Why not?”

Daryl hadn’t planned on talking about the incident, which had left him so frustrated and angry that he’d felt sick to his stomach. But there it was.

He shrugged. “Lady said she was too traumatized, and pretty much told me to change my clothes and comb my hair or don’t come back.”

Aaron was still gazing at him with those big bedroom eyes, but his brow furrowed. “That’s not right.”

“D’ya think she would really be scared of me?”

Aaron looked thoughtful. “I’ve wondered if she might think we somehow stole her from her parents. Last she saw them, they were alive, you know?”

“Mmm. Never thought of that.”

“We’ll find a way to talk to her,” Aaron assured him. He smiled gently then and put down his cards, studied Daryl a minute before reaching across the table and pushing a lock of hair carefully out of his eyes, his fingers brushing Daryl’s cheek. The touch tickled, and Daryl shivered all the way to his toes. “If you let her see your eyes, she’ll know you for who you are,” he murmured.

Aaron’s smile turned a little sexier, his gaze more intense. “And you know I like you in black leather, but you’re always welcome to raid my closet for something more kid-friendly.”

Daryl could hardly breathe, and suddenly his jeans were feeling a bit too tight in the crotch. The panicky butterflies fluttered to life in his gut, and he tore his eyes from Aaron’s, fixing them on the table, trying to get himself back under control. All he could do was nod.

“Well,” Aaron said after a moment, “it’s really too dark to play cards, I guess. You tired enough to sleep? Want me to take first watch?”

Daryl gladly slid off the bench and stood up, thankful his shirt-tail was untucked. “Naw, you sleep. I can do it.”

Aaron stood up too, and stretched. “What’s the bed situation back there?”

They walked to the back of the camper, and Daryl reached down and pulled out the sofa bed, shook out the quilt lying at the head and spread it on the cushions. Then, reaching up, he held the top bunk mattress up with one hand, while wrestling the pole down to lower it with the other. In a moment, it was ready for occupancy, too.

“Wow,” Aaron marveled. “It always took two of us to do that.”

Daryl snorted. “You like the top, or the bottom?” He looked back at Aaron, who met his gaze steadily, his eyes shining, eyebrows raised ever so slightly. Daryl suddenly became aware of what he’d said, and what Aaron might be thinking. A hot flush rose up his neck, and he was glad of the dim light, hoping the color wasn’t visible on his face. Hoping the bulge in his jeans wasn’t the size of the fuckin’ Empire State Building. Hoping the fear in his belly wouldn’t get the best of him.

“I always get the top,” Aaron said slowly and carefully. “But what I really like is the bottom.”

It was a test, Daryl knew, and he had an out. He could pretend he had no idea what Aaron was referring to, toss his coat on the top bunk, and prepare to take watch. Or…

“Ain’t never been on top,” Daryl murmured softly.

He was showing Aaron all his cards, his soft underbelly, but he was surprised to find he didn’t care. He trusted Aaron, beyond all reason. And he was shocked to find he wanted Aaron, beyond all doubt. He lifted his chin, squared his shoulders, set his hands on his hips—ready for anything. “Maybe I’ll try.”

Aaron’s eyebrows lifted higher, and he bit back a smile and gave Daryl a nod and a quick up and down glance. Daryl felt his cock twitch as he realized he’d read the man correctly.

“Go ahead then,” Aaron urged gently. “Take the top.” He turned his back on Daryl and walked two more steps to the bed, and Daryl watched in the growing darkness as Aaron slowly unbuttoned his navy blue shirt, pulling it from his pants and peeling it off his shoulders, revealing his lithe, muscular back. A moment later his pants were pooling around the floor at his ankles, leaving little black briefs that hugged his tight, round ass. Aaron bent over casually and began to untie and remove his boots and socks.

Daryl couldn’t think of anything in his life he had ever wanted more than he now wanted that ass. It hurt how much.

Chewing on his bottom lip, he stepped forward quietly until he was right behind Aaron, who glanced at him over his shoulder, a tiny smile on his lips. Aaron kicked his pants and boots aside and then leaned forward over the bed to fuss with the covers. Daryl stepped up between his spread legs, and gently took hold of the man’s hips. His heart pounded in his chest, his ears, making him feel a little lightheaded—but the warm, solid feel of Aaron’s body was grounding.

“What about Eric?” he asked.

“Mmm,” Aaron purred, “Thoughtful of you to ask. We have a pretty open relationship. In fact, if he were here, I’m sure he’d like to watch what you’re going to do.”

“What’m I gonna do?”

“That’s up to you, isn’t it? But I’m hoping you’re gonna fuck the hell out of me.”

Daryl couldn’t possibly tell him that he’d never fucked the hell out of anyone, though he’d had the hell fucked out of him more times than he cared to count over the years—and while most of those times were consensual, most of them had involved cash or trade. It wasn’t that he hadn’t had offers to be on top… it was that he couldn’t see himself bothering, with some fat, hairy, truck-stop faggot he didn’t give a shit about and would never see again. He just didn’t want to work that hard. He wanted to be able to look the other way, watch TV, smoke a joint and pretend it was happening to someone else, if necessary. He didn’t even have to get hard.

But that was then…

He hooked his thumbs around the waistband of Aaron’s briefs and tugged them down his thighs, revealing two perfect globes of flesh. Aaron stepped out of the briefs, but otherwise remained still, his hands on the mattress, waiting on Daryl.

He’d never fucked the hell out of anyone, but the times he’d enjoyed being fucked (and remembered it) were vivid, and he knew what he liked, what made him wild, what made him come good and hard. He could do that to Aaron, couldn’t he?

“You ready?”

“Yeah…”

Daryl grabbed Aaron by the thighs and lifted him off the ground, driving him forward onto the bed, spreading him open, hearing him cry out softly as he scrambled for purchase on the quilt. Daryl crawled up between his legs and kissed those two perfect globes, so white they seemed to glow in the darkness, so soft and clean and smooth, like Judith’s little baby ass, and then he bit down, hard, eliciting another cry. He kissed the bite, lapped at it, soothed it, then chose another tender spot and bit again.

“OhGod…” Aaron whimpered. “OhGodOhGod…”

Daryl nibbled and licked and sucked hickeys all over Aaron’s perfect buttocks until he felt he’d properly claimed them. Pulled the man’s ass higher into the air and spread his legs wider. Aaron buried his face in the bedcovers to stifle his loud groan as Daryl licked and probed at him, quickly following his tongue with one wet finger, then two, then three, pushing deep. Aaron quivered and moaned and pushed back against him wantonly, making Daryl wonder how long either of them could hold out when he actually got inside the man.

“Hey man, you need coolin’… yer tyin’ me up in knots,” Daryl muttered.

Aaron turned his head to look at Daryl behind him. “What I need is your cock inside me,” he said, eyes big and soft and come hither. “But first go grab some of that cooking oil and a condom out of my pants pocket.”

Daryl pushed himself up and back and hustled to fetch the items, then came back and stood next to the bed. Aaron lay on his stomach, watching over his shoulder as Daryl popped open his button, unzipped his fly and pulled his dick out. He snatched up the condom, tore open the foil, and rolled the rubber on carefully. It had been a damn long time. High school as a matter-of-fact. What the hell was that girl’s name...? A quarter-sized pool of oil in his palm slicked him up right.

He held his glistening, sheathed cock up for Aaron to see. “This what you want?” he teased.

“Do I need to beg? Yes, please… Oh God…”

Daryl reached out for him, grabbing the man again by the hipbones and dragging him backwards on his knees until their bodies clashed. “I got you, baby, I got you,” Daryl soothed. A few moments’ panting and fumbling, and then there was nothing but heat and pressure and deep, intense pleasure.

“Yeah, that’s it, fuck me,” Aaron was moaning, “Fuck me,” and Daryl remembered to pull out almost all the way before thrusting back in again, because he knew that would drive Aaron crazy, and he was holding Aaron’s hips, controlling him and dominating him completely, but pleasing him mightily, and that was exciting and terrifying all at once.

Aaron turned away to groan into the blankets again, and watching his curly head, the textured plane of his pale back sloping up to the perfect moons of his ass, muscles flexing as he fisted the sheets, Daryl suddenly imagined it was Rick kneeling beneath him. Rick moaning and pleading for his cock, tight little ass in the air while he held it open and pounded it. “Oh fuck, I’m gonna…” he blurted, and he doubled over Aaron’s body and came in a ferocious explosion that rocked him to his core, in more ways than one.

When he came back to his senses, Aaron was crawling out from beneath him, turning to caress Daryl’s face, slide a hand through his hair. “That was hot,” he was murmuring, “really hot… I was almost there…”

Aaron held his gaze as he spread for him again, lying on his back this time, and Daryl knelt on the bed, knowing what to do. Sliding fingers back into the man’s quivering asshole to milk his prostate, taking hold of his dripping cock in the other hand, he watched Aaron’s head fall back, his mouth open, his face light with bliss.

“That’s it, darlin,’” Daryl heard himself say as he fondled the man, “That’s good, huh? Come on now. Who d’you love?”

Aaron moaned, shuddering and thrusting himself into Daryl’s hand as he shot hot streaks across his bare belly. “You,” he gasped. “It’s you.”

***

Cam came around for nearly two years, a couple times a week, and Daryl never denied him. He lived for those brief hours. Even when Daryl was in a dark place, all Cam had to do was smile, call him “Pretty Boy” in that throaty voice, touch him tenderly, and Daryl melted. And even though Cam called the shots, Daryl felt his own power in the way he could make Cam happy. He always wanted to make Cam happy, and Cam always brought him a little gift, and told him how much he wanted him. Cam made Daryl feel like somebody. And wasn’t that love? Cam never kissed him, but that was ok. “Lovers,” Daryl decided, was what men and women were.

The evening Lenny and Ray darkened the doorway of the flat, Daryl knew something was up. He’d been hanging around in the kitchen, trying to keep busy by fiddling with a new toy Merle had recently stolen from his old man’s house, but really waiting breathlessly for Cam to come bounding up the stairs as he usually did on Wednesday night when Merle was at work.

“Heard the news?” Lenny practically yelled, his mouth twisted in a smirk. Ray was grinning like a shark.

“What news?” Daryl growled, shoving his chair back and standing up.

“Merle caught Cam out back by the dumpster at the Quik Stop this afternoon, gettin’ a blow job from Billy Jack’s little brother!”

“How old is that kid? Fifteen?” Ray laughed.

“Yeah, Jesus, I wish I’da been there to see the look on Merle’s face,” Lenny drawled. “I reckon it weren’t pretty! The little fag got away but Merle busted Cam up good. Prob’ly would’a killed him if the cops hadn’t a showed up.”

Daryl took a deep breath, kept his face a carefully expressionless mask. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t.

“Anyway, Merle said ta come tell ya… he prob’ly won’t be comin’ back fer awhile. Y’know, probation and all. Gonna get more than a year this time, I reckon.”

“Yeah, and who’da thought Cam was a goddamn queer? Disgusting, man. I’d a beat his ass, too.”

“He spent an awful lotta time over here. He ever ask you ta’ suck his dick?”

Daryl looked from one of their leering faces to the other, and it was all he could do not to pick up the kitchen chair and bash their teeth out, and keep bashing until their faces ceased to be recognizable.

“Get the fuck outta here, you piece o’ shit,” Daryl snarled at Lenny. Lenny’s eyebrow quirked, and his smile faded. “You too—yer the biggest faggot that ever lived,” he told Ray.

“Wow,” Lenny said, looking over at Ray, “I think maybe we hit a nerve. Ya know, I heard Cam had boy toys all over the county. Wouldn’t it be fuckin’ hilarious if Merle’s own brother was one of ‘em?”

“And Merle not here ta straighten his ass out?”

“I think we’d have ta do it for ‘im!”

Lenny’s face turned dark and ugly. “We know what you been up to, Pretty Boy,” he spat. “I think you’d get in less trouble if maybe you wasn’t so pretty anymore.”

Lenny strode into the room, hell bent on an ass whoopin,’ Ray right behind, and Daryl reached down beneath the table for his new toy—his father’s crossbow—and in one swift move he loaded a bolt and swung the weapon up to point it at Lenny’s face. Both men stopped dead in their tracks.

“You gonna shoot me?” Lenny snorted.

“Try me.”

Lenny looked over at Ray, then back and Daryl, nodded. “You win this time, Pretty Boy,” he said menacingly. “Better watch your ass. You got more than Cam after it now.”

The men left, roaring away in Ray’s Ford pickup. Daryl knew they’d be back, with reinforcements—and he had no one, nothing, and nowhere to go. He WAS no one and nothing, after all. His hands shook as he laid the crossbow on the table, and he wanted to go to his room, curl up on his mattress and sob. He didn’t know which hurt worse—his stomach or his heart. But he could hear Merle’s voice telling him to quit being such a pansy, to stand up and fight, to be a man.

Did being a man mean making a stand in the apartment and shooting as many of Merle’s friends as he could when they returned to beat the shit out of him? He only had three arrows… and if he survived until the Sheriff showed up, he’d end up no better off than Merle.

Daryl decided quickly on the middle road. He knew of an old, abandoned hunting camp back in the woods a few miles away—a place he’d found on his own during a squirrel hunting trip, and returned to a few times. He would pack the crossbow and whatever necessities and valuables he could carry on his motorbike, raid the dumpster at the Piggly Wiggly, and head off in the dark. He would make it on his own—or not. He had no choice.

 

***

Daryl stumbled out of the bunk, shoving his feet into his boots, cursing at the dawn that had snuck up on him so early. He’d had way too much time to think while on watch, and slept fitfully when it was his turn, his mind still grinding away at the grist of his memories and flinging the occasional kernels into fragments of dreams.

Aaron stood outside in the gray light, wrapped in his coat and a blanket, eating a small can of stewed tomatoes with a plastic fork. He gave Daryl a sideways glance and smiled. “Good morning, sunshine.”

“Ain’t nothing good about it yet,” Daryl grumped. He shoved his hands in his jacket pocket and felt around, surprised to locate one last cigarette he didn’t realize he had. “Hold on, I take that back.”

He stuck the cig between his teeth and turned to go back inside and look for some matches, but Aaron grabbed his arm.

“Hold on,” he said, “before you light that thing…”

Daryl let the man spin him back around and gently pluck the cigarette from his mouth; next thing he knew, Aaron’s lips were pressed against his, a hand palming his cheek, fingertips in his hair.

The voice of his tender, new heart was no match for his inner Merle.

You hold on, Romeo,” Daryl growled, pushing him away. He wiped his mouth roughly with the back of his hand. “Enuffa that shit. Kissin’ is for lovers.”

The sincerely sad look that came over Aaron’s face made Daryl immediately regret his words and look away in shame and anger. Anger at himself for being an asshole; anger at Aaron for making him feel it.

“How can I be your lover?” Aaron asked gently, his body still close. He asked like it was a real question.

Daryl rolled his eyes to the sky, slumped back against the camper. “Pfft. That ain’t nothin’ you wanna be.”

“Why are you so sure?”

“You don’t know me, man.”

“I know enough…”

“You don’t know me. You wouldn’t even have talked to me a coupla years ago. You wouldn’t have looked at me. You wouldn’t have set foot in the places I slept in and you don’t even wanna know who I slept with…”

Aaron scowled at him. “That’s not fair…”

“I’ll tell ya what ain’t fair…” Daryl began, but suddenly they both fell silent. Low voices carried on the cold breeze, and a soft whirring sound filled the air.

They looked at each other, eyes wide, then Daryl darted quickly back into the trailer for his weapon, while Aaron threw off the blanket and jogged to the corner of the house, peering through the shrubbery out into the street.

Out the window of the camper Daryl watched, heart thumping, as Aaron stepped into the street bravely, arms in the air, and waved down two people on bicycles. They braked quickly, both their hands going to holsters on their right sides. But they did not draw, and as Daryl watched tensely, he realized they were the ones… the doctor and her friend… that he and Aaron had been looking for.