Safe Haven in the Chaos

BY : IdrilsSecret
Category: S through Z > The Walking Dead
Dragon prints: 3635
Disclaimer: I do not own the walking dead or any of the characters. No money is being made from the writing of these stories

Chapter 3  So You Want To Learn To Track

 

The weekend passed by uneventful. Daryl thought about that. For so long he didn’t know what day of the week it was, and didn’t care. It didn’t matter when you were out in the world just trying to survive. You knew day and night. You knew when you woke up in the morning that you’d survived another one, and hoped to make it until the next sunrise. So, how sure were they about the days of the week? Maybe it didn’t matter. Someone just said, it feels like Monday so let’s make it that. It still didn’t matter to Daryl. He was still just surviving day to day and nothing more.

But since they were going by days of the week, it was now Tuesday, and he was on his way to Deanna’s house to meet up with Aaron and get their instructions and equipment to perform another run. Daryl was a little anxious to see Aaron again. He hadn’t seen or heard from him since he came to the house after the social get together at Deanna’s home. They had started a pretty heavy conversation, but Aaron left before Daryl said anything definite. For his whole life he’d had questions about certain things he was feeling, things that his own father would have put an arrow through his heart for. He was raised to hate the kind of people that Aaron and Eric were, but to hate them might have meant to hate himself, if for sure that’s what he was. He was still very confused about it, and it was better to let certain things remain dormant. Aaron, though, he brought out that hidden secret. Daryl could feel the child within screaming to be set free. He still wouldn’t dare risk it.

He heard footsteps rushing up behind him and heard Aaron call out to him. “Hey, Daryl, wait up.”

Daryl stopped and turned to him. Then he looked up at the bright blue, cloudless morning sky. “Good day for a run, wouldn’t you say?”

Aaron finally caught up to him, gripping his shoulder in welcome, and that same spark shot up Daryl’s spine as before. “I’d say any time we get out of these walls is a good day,” Aaron smiled. He was dressed in his usual, jeans, flannel shirt and a blue jacket. Daryl had on his sleeveless t-shirt and vest. He didn’t go out without his vest. It was the only thing he had left that he’d had with him since the world went to shit.

“How’s the bike running?” Aaron asked as they walked to Deanna’s house. Aaron had showed Daryl his garage when they’d first met. It was full of tools and bike parts. Whoever used to live there was an avid motorcycle junkie. For Daryl, it was like Christmas. Aaron told him he could have it all. He and Eric knew nothing about mechanics. Daryl thought he'd like to teach him sometime. It was good to at least know the basics, in case you got stuck out on the road somewhere.

“It’s great, best it’s sounded in a long time,” Daryl answered.

“Guess you’re anxious to take it out.”

“Yeah, man. I haven’t been able to get on the open road with it yet.”

They arrived at Deanna’s house and knocked. She opened the door with a welcoming smile. “Come on in. I was just about to make some tea. You boys want some?”

Aaron was about to say yes, but Daryl said no first, and then Aaron changed his mind. He did that a lot when they were together, always choosing what Daryl chose. It was kind of funny, sometimes a bit annoying, but Daryl never complained.

“Well, you both seem anxious to get going,” Deanna remarked.

“Where will you send us this time, west? We haven’t been on that side of town in a while,” Aaron asked.

Deanna paced once in front of them, stopping at Daryl’s side. “I believe I am going to leave that to you. I’ve been thinking. I’ve got the best tracker money can buy, and–”

Daryl interrupted with a cynical laugh.

“Sorry,” she said. “Force of habit.” No one used money anymore, and it was cliché to make such a statement. “Let me rephrase that. I am lucky to have the best tracker I’ve ever come across, and I think I’ve been wasting your talents by telling you where to search and how far to go. You haven’t brought any new recruits in yet, and I think it is my mistake. So, I’m leaving it completely up to you, Daryl, as to where you want to search. All I ask is that you give me a rough idea of how long you’ll be gone, so we’ll know when to start worrying about you.”

“Sounds fair enough,” Daryl said, accepting the proposal, and feeling his freedom settle into his bones. “How ‘bout a week?”

Aaron snapped his attention on Daryl. “A week? That’s a long time.”

“You got somewhere you need to be?” Daryl questioned as a challenge, a smirk in his eyes and on his lips. He knew Aaron was thinking about Eric and whether he’d approve of him being gone for that long.

“No … no, a week is good.” Aaron didn’t sound convinced.

“Good,” Deanna said, pleased. “Give me a list of items you’ll need, and I’ll have them packed and ready in an hour. You can go whenever you like.”

Daryl did as she suggested and finally, he and Aaron left Deanna’s house. But as they were heading back to get their vehicles, Aaron looked very concerned. “You alright with this?” Daryl asked.

“I am, sure, but I don’t think Eric will be.”

“Look, man, I know this used to be your and his gig. I get that he’s jealous or whatever. I’m sorry, but if we’re being given the freedom to do this my way, then we’re going to do it right, and we are going to bring back some new blood.”

“Ok, I get it. I’ll meet you at the gate. I gotta grab some clothes and talk to Eric first.”

Daryl nodded. “Meet you in an hour.”

* * * * *

They finally headed out on the open road, Daryl leading on his bike and Aaron in his car. The trunk was packed with supplies, equipment, and a few rations. Daryl would hunt for their food, and he was looking forward to it. Actually, he was looking forward to teaching Aaron a thing or two about living off the land. He felt like the guy needed to know these things, or at least more than he knew now. He was smart and a quick learner.

They rode out about twenty miles from town the first night, not too far of a drive, but a long way on foot for someone searching for sanctuary. They went west, like Aaron suggested. He’d been right about not going that way in a while. It was a good start, and they still had plenty of time before they needed to get back. Daryl hadn’t felt this happy in a while, and he rode tall and proud on his bike.

The first night was just to set up a camp, use up the perishable supplies that Deanna had sent along with them, make a walker proof radius around their site, and prepare to head out on foot the next day. Daryl found a decent place to make camp, where their backs were up against a hillside. Being protected on at least one side gave them an advantage. Tomorrow, if they didn’t find any survivors, they’d pack up and head further out. Daryl thought he knew where an old cabin was. That would make a better place to stay, and he was sure it was going to rain in the next couple days. The air was beginning to feel heavy with humidity. Something was brewing, but it would take a while to reach them.

The first full day out was a bust. Daryl had tracked all day. Only twice did he find something worth scoping out, but they never found anyone. Aaron was right with him every step of the way.

“Can I ask you how you know what to look for?” Aaron said.

Daryl smiled to himself as he was kneeling down, examining some tracks. “So you want to learn to track?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“It’s not easy at first. Everything looks the same. You’re in a forest. There’s trees and leaves on the ground, fallen branches, and logs,” Daryl said.

“I see that,” Aaron responded, looking around the area.

“Here’s what you don’t see.” Daryl pointed to the ground. “These leaves here aren’t dead. They didn’t just fall from the tree. They were pulled down in some way, whether by accident or on purpose. Green leaves don’t just fall on their own. So something must have come by here. But the leaves are beginning to shrivel, so it didn’t happen too soon ago.” Daryl got up and went a little further. “Now, see these low branches? Look at the ends. They’re broken, and some are not completely severed from the tree. Something came a little close to this tree and brushed up against here, breaking the branches. They’re low, so it could be anything from a coyote to a human. If it was an animal, there’d be hair, but I don’t see anything. I don’t see any pieces of material or flesh.”

“Flesh?” Aaron asked curiously.

“Walkers, depending on how long they’ve turned, tend to leave plenty of it. Practically falls from them if they’re rotten long enough.”

“I never thought about it like that before,” Aaron said, disturbed by the thought.

“That’s why it’s easier to plunge a knife into some of their skulls than others.”

“Ok, so we have green leaves and broken branches. Where do we go from here?”

Daryl was glad that Aaron was actually interested in learning, and not just trying to make conversation. “We look at which way the branches bend, and it tells us which way someone was heading. Let’s go this way.”

They went along, finding more clues. Aaron even found a piece of yellow thread on a tree trunk. Daryl was amazed at what a good eye he had. His heart began to race. Could they really be on someone’s trail? His tread hurried through the forest with Aaron behind, keeping an eye out for the unexpected. Daryl would stop every now and again to show Aaron a new clue, and point things out to him. Finally, they heard movement up ahead, and ducked behind some foliage to see what it was. But just as soon as they thought they’d finally found someone, they smelled it. Rot and decay abused their senses, and just then a walker in a yellow jacket entered their line of sight.

“Damn,” Aaron whispered with disappointment.

“Shall I or would you like the honors?” Daryl asked.

“I got it,” Aaron said, pulling his knife from his belt. He left the cover of the bush and went after the walking corpse. This really impressed Daryl, how Aaron went out there like it was nothing. The walker didn’t turn around until Aaron was right up behind it, and he forced his knife through its forehead. Another one down, Daryl thought to himself. One less walking dead. It made sense though. All the times he and Eric had been out on runs, Aaron was the one to deal with them. He wouldn’t have let Eric do it, for fear of him getting bit.

Aaron wiped his blade off on the yellow jacket and went back to Daryl. “Sorry, man. I should have just gone out and done it myself,” he apologized.

“Why?” Aaron asked.

“Because you had to do this all the time with Eric, didn’t you?”

Aaron looked back over this shoulder to the corpse. “Yeah, but it’s no big deal.”

“But you don’t have to now. At least not all the time. We share the responsibility now, you and me. We’re a team.”

Aaron thought about this a moment, and then fixed his gaze on Daryl. “I never even thought about it, but you’re right, though I’ll worry about you no matter what.”

“Wouldn’t be human if we didn’t worry ‘bout one another.” Daryl dared a smile, and watched as Aaron’s eyes widened with surprise.

“Why, Mr. Dixon, you care. You actually care,” Aaron jostled.

Daryl laughed. “Alright, enough of that bullshit. Mr. Dixon was my–” He cut himself off.

“He was your what?” Aaron inquired.

“Well, I was going to say he was my father, but nobody ever call him that either. Son of a bitch, prick, asshole … those were my father, but never Mr. Dixon.”

They decided to head back to their camp after an uneventful track. Daryl was silent after mentioning his father. He didn’t like to talk about him, and he didn’t know why he’d said anything now, but it mostly had to do with being comfortable with Aaron.

“You had it rough, huh?” Aaron finally said.

“Yeah. So did you,” Daryl added.

“My dad never hit me. Never hit my mom either. He was just a drunk, and a miserable one.”

“You’re lucky then. I mean, not lucky with who you had as a father, but lucky he didn’t use you as a punching bag.”

“Did he hit you a lot?” Aaron asked.

“When I was smaller he did. Then I wizened up. I went to my brother and asked him to teach me how to fight. He taught me how to avoid a blow instead. Pissed my dad off something awful the first time he missed. He was about to slap me in the face, and I avoided it. He tried again and a few more times, but he kept missing.” Daryl pulled the neck of his t-shirt down a little, exposing a scar just under his collarbone.

“What’s that from?” Aaron asked, studying it.

“My dad woke me up with his knife pointed right there. Told me next time I better stand still and take my punishment like a real man or he’d cut deeper than the slice that made this scar.”

“He cut you? What an asshole.” Aaron seemed very disturbed.

“It was my fault. I should have known he wouldn’t let me get away with being a smart ass.”

“Why? Because you ducked from a punch in the face?”

 

Daryl laughed. “No, because I enjoyed besting him.”

Aaron’s finger came up and touched the scar. “Did it hurt?”

“The knife? No. Knowing my father wouldn’t think twice about doing something like that? Yeah.” His voice lowered at the memory, but Aaron’s touch brought his attention back to the present, and he could feel Aaron’s warm breath on his skin.

“I’m sorry,” Aaron said sincerely. He lifted his eyes to meet Daryl’s and they connected on a level they’d never shared before. His heart rate sped up, and where they touched felt inflamed, as tough the scar began to pulsate with the blood pumping through his veins. Daryl instantly reached up and took Aaron’s hand, removing it from his chest, but he didn’t release him right away. Aaron’s eyes flicked to his lips and back in question. Suddenly, Daryl wanted to know. He’d always wanted to know, but the memories came back, the sound of the leaky faucet dripping into the stainless steel sink, that annoying pinging. It always happened when he let his curiosity get the better of him. Daryl pushed Aaron’s hand back towards his chest.

“I … I … don’t–”

“I shouldn’t have,” Aaron stated with sadness. “Sorry.”

That night, as they lay by their low burning fire, Daryl watched Aaron from the opposite side. He offered to take the first shift to let Aaron get some sleep. He studied the man’s handsome features, his brows, his jawline, the stubble sprouting on his chin, and the light fuzz of a mustache beginning to form. Then he looked at his lips, nice looking lips, pouting, full. What might it be like to kiss another man? He’d kissed a girl a few times on a dare. That didn’t count though, and he’d felt nothing. But to kiss a man sensually, with feeling? Something stirred within, and Daryl shifted his position to keep things from bringing on a life of their own. And then Aaron’s eyes slowly opened, settling directly on Daryl, as though he knew what was in his mind at the moment. Aaron gave a slight smile and went back to sleep. Daryl turned his attention to the darkness and concentrated on the forest sounds.

* * * * *

Their second day on the road, Daryl was leading them to an area where he was sure he’d seen an old cabin, but with his thoughts scattered, he was having a difficult time. They’d come across some more walkers, and that got him focused, but as soon as the danger passed, he went right back to thinking about what almost happened. He became frustrated, which always made him extra silent. Marching along through the trees wasn’t helping either.

“Damn it!” he shouted in irritation.

“Are you sure it’s–”

“Yes I’m sure,” Daryl snapped, and Aaron remained silent. Daryl knew he was wrong, but it was too much. He stopped, his shoulders hitching as he took a deep breath. “I’ve seen familiar landmarks. My group passed close to here. See, I’d go off on my own to hunt or just be alone, always keeping my people close enough not to lose them, and I could have sworn I’d seen a cabin.

He heard Aaron laugh and turned. “You mean like that one?” Aaron pointed.

Sure enough, set back far into the thick growing trees, he could just make out part of a building. “Son of a bitch,” he said running his hand through his hair. “You’re going to take over my job before too long. I better slow down on how much I teach you.”

They made their way to the cabin, but were surprised by what they found. It wasn’t old and rickety like Daryl had thought. Actually, it was quite a handsome place made to look rustic, but sturdily built. “I think someone was trying to detour visitors from coming here,” Aaron pointed out.

“Someone definitely wanted to be alone. Think it’s still occupied?” Daryl asked.

“Only one way to find out.” Aaron went on ahead, no fear of what they might find.

It was made of rough sawn wood, and looked very old, but the cameras hidden on either side of the porch gave Daryl a tinge of caution. He signaled to Aaron with his eyes, and they lowered their weapons. If someone was inside watching them, they didn’t want to look like a threat. Daryl peeked in one of the windows, but the curtains were drawn and it was dark inside. He tapped a finger on the glass, and they waited for someone or something to come to the sound. Nothing happened. Aaron tried the door, and amazingly it was unlocked. He pushed it open, and stood to the side in case something came out at them. Daryl raised his crossbow, and Aaron cocked his gun. No stench came out. It seemed clear of walkers, but you never knew what was hiding in a room somewhere.

“Hey! Yo!” Daryl called. Nothing. They went in, weapons raised, and took quick inventory. There was a layer of dust over everything. It looked like no one had been there in quite a long time. “Clear the rooms,” Daryl demanded. “You take that way, I’ll go here.” Aaron started to go, but Daryl grabbed his arm. “Be careful.”

Daryl was shocked at the modern look inside, compared to the outside. It was fully furnished with leather couches and chairs, expensive rugs, paintings of hunting scenes that looked like they should be museum pieces. There were touch pads where light switches should have been, a beautiful hearth lined with stones, probably from the surrounding area. The whole place was made of cedar, probably from the trees they cleared to build it. The cabin had every amenity someone could wish for, a place Daryl had only seen in fancy magazines where people flaunted their homes.

After checking behind all closed doors and finding nothing, Daryl and Aaron met up in the living room again. “You should see the master bedroom. It’s got one of those memory foam beds, huge TV, and the bathroom is bigger than the bedroom I grew up in,” Aaron said with amazement.

“There’s two more bedrooms on the other side, fully furnished and decorated. The kitchen is all done in stainless steel with the stove on an island in the center of the room. And there’s a pool room, table, cues, bar, the works. It’s like fucking Homes and Gardens in here. Someone had a lot of money.” As Daryl spoke, Aaron walked to the back door and pulled the blinds open.

“And here’s what they really spent it on,” Aaron said, gazing out the double doors.

Daryl joined him and saw the crystal clear lake out back, complete with a large deck on the back of the house, stone fireplace for sitting outside on those chilly nights, a gazebo, a huge built in grill, and a wooden catwalk that led to a covered boat dock on the water. “Wow,” was all he could say.

“I wonder who lived here, and how were they able to keep it so secret?” Aaron wondered.

“It’s all about positioning. You can’t see the lake from where we were because the house built on a slight incline. Whoever owned this, owned the whole thing, lake, woods and all. I wonder how many acres it is.” Daryl stated.

“I wonder if there’s a boat inside there,” Aaron pointed out.

“Maybe. Let’s go see.” Daryl and Aaron readied their weapons and went out the back door.

A warm breeze blew in from the lake. It was a perfect day, the kind that could make them forget about what life was really like now. It looked so serene. “I think I would have put up a hell of a fight to keep this place,” Daryl commented.

“Yeah, I’d hate to lose it too, but obviously whoever lived here didn’t stay,” Aaron said.

“Didn’t or couldn’t,” Daryl replied as they reached the wooden boat building. There was a window on the side, and he tapped on the glass. “I don’t hear anything.”

“There’s a door over here,” Aaron said from the opposite side of the building. A walkway went all the way around, with the dock located on the right side. Daryl joined him and they each took a side of the door. Aaron turned the knob and pushed it open. Another stench hit them, but much older, not like that of walkers. Whatever was in here had been dead for a very long time.

There was a boat, a really nice one, kind of fancy but not too over the top, a typical motorboat. It was white with a maroon canvas top, a cabin below deck and an outboard motor. The top was down and the door that led to the cabin was open. The stale odor of old death lingered in the enclosed boat building, and they had a bad feeling about what they would find.

Daryl moved forward. “I’ll look. You keep an eye out.” Aaron nodded.

Daryl carefully made his way onto the boat and towards the cabin. He had his crossbow at the ready, but he really didn’t think he’d need it. No one was alive down here. Sure enough, he found a decaying body lying on the floor of the boat cabin. There was a gun on the floor, the corpse’s hand still covering it, dried blood near the head, and definitely a bullet wound to the temple. A suicide, Daryl thought. Some poor bastard couldn’t make it on his own. At a closer look, Daryl saw a letter pinned to the front of the dead man’s shirt. He reached down and tore it off, reading the elegant handwriting.

‘I bought this place as soon as they told me I only had a year to live. I made it two, but the world died before I did. I could have kept going, but what point was there to fight anymore. This place was all I had left. It seemed a waste to use it to keep a man alive whose days were numbered anyways. To whomever reads this, I was not a coward for doing this awful deed. I just didn’t want to spend the rest of my time fighting for a few more days. This was a safe haven for me. No roamers came up here while I was alive. I think it’s the lake, as though they know they can’t go anywhere from here. Anyways, I’ve left the front door open. If anyone finds this note, take this place and use it for yourself. It gave me two years of joy and peace, and I hope it will bring you the same sense of protection.’

Daryl went back up top, and handed the letter to Aaron. “Found this on the body.”

Aaron read it and shook his head. “Poor bastard. What should we do with him?”

“I say we just seal this place back up, and let this be his mausoleum. It was his pride and joy. There’s nothing else on the boat anyways, and it won’t help us out any.”

“Alright,” Aaron agreed. They left the boat building and closed the door behind them. Aaron went out onto the doc and gazed across the lake. “It’s really beautiful here … untouched, it seems.”

“Bet there’s some good game around here, and if we can find some fishing equipment, that would be even better. Been a long time since I had fresh fish,” Daryl said.

“So, are we going to haul up here for the week? Aren’t we supposed to be looking for survivors?”

“We will, but you see those clouds forming over there?” Daryl pointed. “It’s gonna rain tonight. I for one don’t want to sleep in the rain, and I’m making a claim on that master bedroom.”

“Fine, I’ll take one of the spares,” Aaron said with disappointment.

They went back inside the house, searching for fishing equipment, and found it in the mudroom. But just as Daryl’s mouth started to water thinking about cooking those nice juicy fish in a pan, Aaron gave him the disappointing news. “Well, there’s no electricity, and the whole house runs on it.”

“Damn. Well, we got the fireplace on the deck. We’ll make due, and cook the fish there,” Daryl suggested with his advice.

“Let’s go then. Not a minute to spare,” Aaron smiled, taking the fishing equipment, poles and a tackle box from the mudroom.

They fished right off the dock. Daryl scrounged up some worms for bait, and before they knew it, they had enough fish for both of them. Daryl cleaned them, and Aaron got a fire going in the grill. It wasn’t as easy as using charcoal or gas, but it would work fine to cook their dinner. Aaron insisted on cooking, and Daryl didn’t put up a fight. He’d eaten his cooking before, and the guy knew what he was doing. Not wanting to get too relaxed, Daryl decided to take a walk around the house, just to make sure nothing snuck up on them. Before long, they had a meal fit for a king.

Back inside, they ate in the kitchen on dinner plates with forks and knives. Daryl found the previous owners wine collection and opened a bottle. Aaron laughed when he poured them a couple glasses. “I thought you said real men don’t use glasses.”

“That’s for moonshine, which I wish we had besides this. Never was one for the fancy stuff.”

Aaron took his glass and watched the red color as it swirled around the sides. “Aren’t we supposed to have white with fish?”

“I don’t know nothing about that. Booze is booze. That’s all I know.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Aaron said, raising his glass in a toast. Daryl clinked his goblet to Aaron’s and they drank deep.

“That’s better than I thought it would be,” Daryl said, brows raised with pleasant surprise.

“It’s not the cheap stuff, that’s for sure.”

With their first bite, both men closed their eyes and savored the taste of fresh caught fish grilled to perfection. After that, they dug in, not caring about proper etiquette, moaning with each bite after.

“My God, I forgot what this was like,” Daryl said.

“I was raised on the standards, meatloaf, spaghetti, chicken tetrazzini. We never grilled much. My dad wasn’t the type to cook. Left it up to my mom,” Aaron commented.

“Where I come from, if you don’t go out and get your own, you ain’t eating. I’ve been shooting squirrel mostly, rabbit every once in a while, but fish … good Lord above, there’s nothing better.” Daryl sucked on his fingers, a smile spread on his lips.

“I feel guilty though. We shouldn’t have it so good out here. We’re supposed to be roughing it, searching for recruits,” Aaron said, finishing his meal and taking his wineglass back up.

“I guess for the guy who lived here, this was his version of roughing it. Some people just don’t get it. But hey, it’s our gain now.” Daryl finished his plate and picked up the bottle of wine, handing it to Aaron. Aaron poured some in his glass and started to hand it back, but Daryl waved him off. “That’s yours. I’ll get my own.”

The two men sat on the leather couch, feet up on the coffee table, slouched back with a bottle of wine. Daryl abandoned his glass after dinner and drank from the bottle, but he noticed that Aaron didn’t. He still had his glass and refilled it whenever it started to get low. They were silent for a long time, enjoying the feel of having their stomachs full and their heads fuzzy with drink.

Aaron swallowed the last of what was in his glass and set it heavily onto the table. He stayed leaning forward, feet on the ground and elbows on his knees, staring at the empty glass.

“You alright?” Daryl asked. He himself was drunk, but Aaron looked like he might throw up. There was an odd look on his face.

“Eric is moving out,” Aaron whispered after a while.

Daryl sat up, taking his feet down. “What?”

Aaron nodded. “He’s moving out of our house. Said he won’t be there when I get back.”

“Why?”

“He said he didn’t want me going on this job, but I think what he meant was that he didn’t want me going without him,” Aaron said.

“Aw, man, I’m sorry. I-I can’t help but feel this is my fault,” Daryl admitted. “Why didn’t you say something earlier? Are you ok?”

Aaron huffed a laugh. “The thing is … I’m … I’m good. I mean, it sucks, but some part of me feels such … relief. I don’t know why. I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to feel remorse, trying to be upset, but all I feel is freedom. Don’t get me wrong, a part of me feels bad, feels the disappointment, and maybe it’s because I’m not there to deal with it. It was not easy being Eric’s partner. It took a lot of effort to be with him, especially after we started making runs together. There was so much pressure to see that he was alright. And then in town, I was protecting him from those that didn’t agree with our lifestyle, and from those who just wanted to shelf him, keep him closed off so he didn’t hurt himself, or have someone else hurt him.”

“You wanted him to be someone he ain’t,” Daryl pointed out.

“I wanted him to see his full potential,” Aaron argued.

“Maybe he already had. You said it yourself. Not everyone is cut out for the same thing. Eric is a nice guy, but this world will eat him alive.”

“So you see my dilemma. What’s going to happen to him without me?”

Daryl shook his head. “You can’t be his keeper and think you can love him. It don’t work that way. Takes equal parts to be in a solid relationship.”

Aaron bent his head to the side and glanced at Daryl. “How is it that someone who’s never had a relationship before makes so much sense?”

“You don’t have to have one to know what you want from one.” Daryl stood and went to the fireplace. They’d been in such a hurry to eat, they didn’t think about starting a fire. It was late now, though, and no one had the motor skills to attempt to make one. Daryl gave a sigh as he looked at the picture above the mantel. There were two men dressed in fancy red coats and white pants, each sitting upon a horse, and a pack of dogs running and sniffing at the ground, probably hunting fox or badger like they used to do a couple hundred years ago. The men were smiling at each other, almost as though they didn’t care about the hunt, like they were just glad to be together. That was how Daryl was feeling at the moment, and it was only because he was here with Aaron. “You’re right,” he said after a long silence. “I ain’t never been serious with anyone. I don’t know the first thing about it, except for what my instincts tell me. But I know it’s not right to be together just to keep them safe or to try to teach them something that maybe they’ll never be able to learn. And it’s not right to stay with them just because they are the only one like you.”

Aaron got up and joined Daryl at the fireplace. “That’s it though. I think that’s what drove me to him to begin with. I … hadn’t met another man since my boyfriend left for his flight that one morning. Things got bad and the world started to fall apart. The group I hooked up with was made up of men and women, some together, some single, none of them gay. We moved here and there, changed up members as we went along. Still, I was alone … in that way. I started to think that I’d never meet anyone ever again, not that I was looking for something. I just needed someone who understood what I was going through, but no one did. The idea that I might never know a touch, or a look was overwhelming. Then, after so long on the road, the group I was with was brought into Alexandria. As soon as I saw Eric, I knew he was like me, and I guess that’s all I saw. Finally, someone I could relate to, who understood me. I didn’t care if I loved him or whether we were compatible. I was just happy to find another man like me.”

“But he wasn’t like you. Eric is his own person, and whether he’s gay or not, that’s not going to decide whether you should be with him. So you thought you could change him, turn him into the person you’ve been searching for,” Daryl said. “Well, take it from me, you can’t change people from who they’re meant to be.”

“And yet, here you are doing exactly that,” Aaron said.

“What do you mean?” Daryl asked, back turned to Aaron.

“You know who you are meant to be, Daryl, but you still hide, even though those who held you down are gone.”

“My situation is different. I–”

Aaron stopped him with a hand to his shoulder. “It’s no different. We’ve all had to hide at one point or another, but what do we have to worry about anymore? The world’s gone to hell, and damn if I’m going to keep from living my life in secret.” He removed his hand and went to the other side of Daryl where he could see his face, but Daryl wouldn’t look at him. He just kept staring into the cold, dark hearth. “I’ve been wrong about Eric. All this time, I’ve been trying to make him into someone I want him to be. I was desperate, and that wasn’t right. But I didn’t even understand what I was doing until you came to town.”

“Aaron–” Daryl started to complain, but he was stopped.

“I never would have even noticed him in my past life. If I’d seen Eric in one of those dance clubs I used to sneak into, I’d have passed right by without a second glance. So what am I doing with him now? Maybe I’m just trying to preserve something, a way of life, some kind of normalcy in the chaos. I don’t love him. I never have, and I’ve tried. It’s just not there. So I turned to protecting him, teaching him, and that made it ok to be with him.” Aaron stopped and shook his head at his disappointment. “We’re nothing alike. He came from a loving, accepting family. I came from a broken home, and parents who thought I was an abomination. Maybe Eric was trying to change me too. He always tried so hard to be some kind of homemaker, keep the things around us perfect and all ‘white picket fence’. That’s just not me, and Eric will never be a fighter. It wasn’t until I first spotted you that I started to realize I might have made a mistake. I watched you put your life on the line and thought, that’s who I am, and that’s the type of person I should be with, two people fighting together, both strong and determined. You’re a survivor, Daryl, and you have been your whole life. You were like me.” He paused and smiled. “So now you see why I jumped at the chance to have you on my team.”

“But you don’t know everything about me,” Daryl said quietly.

“I know enough for now. You’ll tell me the rest in your own time. One day you’ll chose what side of the picket fence you want to be on.” Aaron stepped away from the hearth. “Well, I’m beat, and we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow. Good night.” He started off towards the spare bedrooms.

“Hey, Aaron,” Daryl called, stopping him. Aaron turned. “Just out of curiosity, what would you have done if you saw me in that club?”

The smile on Aaron’s face was genuine … priceless really. “Come on, Daryl. You’d never be caught dead in some club. No … we met exactly when we were supposed to … for both of us, I think.”



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