Safe Haven in the Chaos

BY : IdrilsSecret
Category: S through Z > The Walking Dead
Dragon prints: 3484
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 48 Left Behind

 

 

Daryl walked around the courtyard. It was empty at this time of night. He was glad for it. Still feeling the effects of the whiskey, he didn’t feel like dealing with anyone wanting to know why he was here or if he was all right. He was far from all right. He was confused, angry, sickened, and most of all, sorry for behaving as he did. He couldn’t go back to Aaron. An explanation would be expected for his unforeseen and violent behavior. Aaron would want to know why, and he wouldn’t let up until Daryl gave him an answer. He couldn’t tell him because he couldn’t talk about it. He didn’t want to talk about it because it would take him right back to that dark cell with the horrible music and the putrid smells. It would take him back to the feel of Brady forcing himself upon Daryl’s body, making him say Aaron’s name aloud while he . . .

 

Daryl used the excuse that he was feeling claustrophobic, and that seemed to make matters better temporarily. The fact that he stormed out of the room, leaving Aaron to wonder what happened didn’t help the situation. He couldn’t ignore Aaron. He didn’t want to, but he just wasn’t ready to tell anyone about his secret. To know what happened to him, and that he wasn’t able to stop it made Daryl feel small and weak. He feared Aaron would see him this way too, and come to pity him or be disgusted by him. It was better to keep this to himself until enough time passed that he could deal with it.

 

He walked around until he came to the gardens. There was an area where the plants were tall, and he stepped just inside to hide from the world. All around him, all he could see were these plants, but when he looked up, the sky was limitless with the stars that wheeled above. Up there was freedom … freedom from all the awful, vile unpleasantness of this world and those things that kept finding their way back into Daryl’s life. Why was it happening to him? Why did it always happen to him? His emotions jumbled and became too much. He fell to his knees and sobbed into his hands covering his face. Nothing would ever be the same again. He was ruined beyond repair this time.

 

The sun was coming up. The beams of light touched his eyelids and woke him. How long had he been here? Long enough that the effects of the whiskey had worn away. He peeked out from the plants that had been his camouflage, and saw that the courtyard was still fairly empty. Only a few people were out. He could slip out unnoticed, and that’s what he did. He climbed a set of stairs that led to a breezeway and walked along, not knowing where he was going. He couldn’t go back to his room. Aaron was probably still sleeping. Daryl didn’t want to be alone with him right now, where he could ask all kinds of questions that couldn’t be answered. The smell of food wafted past him, and he thought of how hungry he was. He decided to go to the kitchen.

 

Part of the way there, he passed by the doors that led to King Ezekiel’s meeting chamber, which was just a school auditorium. The door opened and Jesus came out. As soon as he saw Daryl, he sighed with relief. “Thank God, there you are. Where’ve you been?”

 

“I couldn’t sleep last night. Been walking around, clearing my head,” Daryl said.

 

“Aaron’s been all over this place since before the sun came up looking for you. He woke me up to see if I knew where you might be. The two of us have been scouring the place,” Jesus said. “He was just about ready to set out and search the surrounding area to see if you left the Kingdom.”

 

“I didn’t go anywhere. Shit, I just needed some time alone. Can’t I have that?” Daryl complained.

 

“Well, you might want to go tell Aaron you’re all right,” Jesus said, but he took hold of Daryl’s arm and searched his face. “Is everything okay?”

 

“Fine,” Daryl said being curt. He could tell Jesus wanted to ask him more, but Daryl softened his eyes and nodded. “I’m fine. Where’s Aaron?”

 

“Last I saw, he was over there by the next building.”

 

“Thanks,” Daryl said as he pulled away from Jesus and headed in that direction. He wasn’t going there, though. He looked back, and when he didn’t see Jesus, he went toward the mess hall to find food.

 

The cooks were still preparing the morning meal, but there were other things sitting out for people to snack on. Daryl took an apple and bit into it. It was sweet and juicy, and his stomach screamed out to him to swallow faster. He heard the door open, and looked over his shoulder. Benjamin came in with a sack in one hand. He saw Daryl and smiled as he approached.

 

“Hey, Daryl. You’re up early,” Benjamin said.

 

Daryl lifted his apple. “Early bird theory.”

 

“Good one,” Benjamin chortled as he reached into the basket and took out a couple apples, a pear and a pomegranate. He put them into his sack and went to another basket that had cucumbers, tomatoes, and green beans and sweet peppers, taking a few of each and putting them in his bag.

 

“Who’s that for?” Daryl wondered.

 

“This? Oh, it’s, uh, it’s for King Ezekiel. Yeah, he likes to have something handy as he makes his rounds,” Benjamin stammered nervously.

 

“I didn’t know he made rounds,” Daryl interrogated. Benjamin was behaving oddly.

 

“Yeah, he’s very involved with all of his people, and sometimes giving them food makes them feel better about things.”

 

“What kind of things?” Daryl pressed on.

 

Benjamin shrugged his shoulders. “I-I don’t know, whatever concerns they have. I don’t ask, I just do what he requests of me.” He smiled at Daryl.

 

For some reason, Daryl was curious about Benjamin’s behavior. It felt as though he was trying to hide something, and Daryl knew the Kingdom, just like any other community, must have its secrets. He was about to ask another question when the door opened again and Aaron came in. The look on his face made Daryl’s heart hurt. He looked so worried, but relief washed over him as soon as he saw Daryl. Aaron came over to him, his eyes never leaving Daryl.

 

“Oh, hey Aaron,” Benjamin said kindly.

 

“Hi Benjamin,” Aaron responded, but he was looking at Daryl. Benjamin looked from one man to the other and backed up. “I’ll see you around,” he said and slinked away to leave them alone. Apparently, the kid could feel the tension too.

 

When they were alone, Aaron pulled Daryl into his arms and held him. He whispered into his ear. “I thought you left.”

 

“I’m right here,” Daryl said, trying not to let his emotions show.

 

“Where were you? You just … left, and I didn’t know what to do.”

 

“I couldn’t sleep. Ended up walking around this place all night, trying see if I could find out anything that might help us,” Daryl said.

 

“Did you find anything?” Aaron asked.

 

“No,” Daryl said brusquely. He could tell by the troubled aspect of his eyes and the frown on his lips that Aaron wanted to know more, and Daryl spoke harshly to shut him down. “That’s all it was. Now, drop it.” He felt like an asshole for talking to Aaron like that, but this was the only way to deal with the situation at the moment.

 

Aaron took a step back from him. “We’re meeting with Ezekiel in about half an hour. I’ll see you then.” Aaron’s tone was harsh in return, and he left the mess hall.

 

Daryl lost his appetite and abandoned the apple he was eating, leaving it on one of the picnic tables.

 

>>------->

 

Aaron stormed out of the mess hall and into the courtyard. He wasn’t sure what was going on. Daryl wouldn’t talk to him. He’d left him last night just as they were about to . . .

 

This wasn’t normal, but he had to remind himself that Daryl just went through a traumatic experience with Negan and the Saviors. Now he was on the run from him. That’s all this was, he convinced himself. Knowing Daryl, he was probably scared for everyone around him more than for himself, worried that they would be punished if they were in the same vicinity as Daryl, should he get caught. Aaron felt Daryl was pushing him away, and this was probably the reason, but he just wanted to help. He wanted to be the one to keep Daryl safe, just like they always did for each other. This was how their relationship worked. They hadn’t had this kind of complication before, and it was putting a definite strain on them. It had only been a couple days. Daryl needed time. Aaron was the one who was anxious to get back to what they had before everything went awry.

 

He stopped and gave a sigh, letting his shoulders drop in defeat. Then he turned around and went back to the mess hall, but Daryl was gone already. Aaron found the half eaten apple, picked it up and deposited it in the compost bin. “Where’d you go now, Daryl?” he said to himself.

 

The courtyard was becoming busy with early morning risers out picking the gardens. Aaron didn’t see Daryl anywhere, but that didn’t surprise him. Daryl wasn’t in a talking mood. Making his way back to his room, Aaron ran into Sasha. She smiled at him as they passed in the hall, but then she called out to him.

 

“Hey, everything okay?” she asked. Aaron turned around and gave her a forced smile.

 

“It’s fine.”

 

Sasha came towards him, her brows pressed together. “You don’t look fine. What’s happened?”

 

Aaron hung his head. “It’s Daryl. He’s … aloof,” was all he said.

 

“Well, he just went through something–”

 

“Yeah, I get it,” Aaron interrupted. “I just thought he would talk to me about it. He hasn’t told me anything about his time at the Sanctuary. I thought he could open up to me, but he’s pushing me away.”

 

“Everyone deals with trauma differently. He’s probably still trapped in that place. He’ll come around,” Sasha said.

 

“I hope so,” Aaron replied.

 

“I’m going to grab a bite to eat. Wanna come?” she smiled.

 

“Thanks, but I was going to my room to get my stuff together. Rick wants to leave as soon as Ezekiel gives his verdict.” Aaron went on to his room and went inside. He stared at the messy bed, and the sheet on the floor where Aaron had dropped it after using it to cover himself when Daryl stormed out of the room. What the hell had happened? Aaron took the initiative to undress Daryl, who came back drunk, so that he could rest comfortably. He wasn’t trying for anything else. As a matter of fact, it was Daryl who started it all when he pinned Aaron to the bed and undressed him. It was the wound on his side, the one Aaron tried to get a look at that triggered Daryl. He was very sensitive to it, and didn’t want Aaron looking at it. Who had stabbed him and why? Aaron wondered. And how did it play into everything else? Daryl seemed accepting up until Aaron … when he tried to take control.

 

“I shouldn’t have done that,” he said to himself, knowing how Daryl needed control from time to time. And after being locked away like he was, of course he would want total command. Still, something wasn’t right because as Aaron physically suggested where the night should lead, Daryl didn’t hesitate. “He was drunk, though,” Aaron reminded himself. That would factor in. He came to the conclusion that Daryl was dealing with his demons, and Aaron trying to be the dominant one had been bad timing. “He’ll come around and talk to me eventually,” he reassured himself.

 

Aaron had his pack and walked with the others to the courtyard. When they got there, King Ezekiel was already there, along with Benjamin, Richard and a couple others from his court. Ezekiel started out by smiling and talking about how idealistic the Kingdom was. However, it wasn’t like this when they found it, and the King and his people had to fight and struggle for this place. The people of the Kingdom lost a lot in the process. Ezekiel gestured to some of the young people, and Aaron noticed a girl practicing with her bow. She was sitting on a stool as she aimed, and that’s when he noticed she was missing a leg. He took notice that others were missing an arm or a hand. Most were young, some were adults.

 

“Husbands lost wives. Mother’s lost children. Some children have been orphaned. It was a very difficult struggle, but we survived, and together we’ve made the Kingdom into what we most wanted and needed, a safe place to live and prosper. This is what I promised them. This is what we have achieved. I don’t want to have to put them through that again, especially when I have peace with the Saviors. Our agreement has worked out well. I supply the Saviors. They do not step foot inside the Kingdom. My people stay safe.”

 

“And just how much longer do you think that’s gonna last,” said Daryl, walking up to the group. He was late in joining them. Aaron watched him, and noticed that Daryl wouldn’t look at him. Neither did he come to stand next to him.

 

“That is our agreement,” Ezekiel said to Daryl in a calm manner. “That is how we keep the peace.”

 

“We can’t fight them alone,” Rick said. “We don’t even have enough to take on one outpost. We need people and weapons. You have both.”

 

“I’ll not risk my people’s lives. It is what I promised them. I will, however offer asylum to Daryl. As I said, the Saviors never step foot inside the Kingdom. He will be safe here,” Ezekiel finished.

 

The group looked defeated, and Aaron could feel their disappointment. He was disappointed too, but the offer for Daryl’s safety was a good one. He moved over to stand next to him. “It’s a good idea,” he whispered with no reaction from Daryl.

 

“Thank you for hearing us out,” Rick said. He seemed to be the only one who didn’t show his disappointment. It was a long way from the Rick who showed up at Alexandria, and tried to force his leadership on them. Aaron was proud of how Rick had changed. He turned to his group. “It’s time to get back.”

 

Everyone thanked Ezekiel and the group of Alexandrians were ready to leave. Richard would lead them out of the Kingdom and to the border. Then they would be on their own to get back. Rick, Daryl, Aaron and Richard walked together out in front of the rest. Richard seemed frustrated. He wanted this to work out. He was one of the Kingdom’s soldiers who knew they needed to fight.

 

“I’m sorry, Rick. I really thought he was convinced. I hate to say it, but I think your old pal, Morgan got in his ear with that no killing shit. That’s never going to work. The only way any of us can get away from the Saviors is to fight them.”

 

“I know that, and you know that, but unfortunately, Ezekiel has a different way of thinking,” Rick said.

 

“Do you have people that would be willing to fight for us in spite of Ezekiel’s ruling?” Aaron wondered.

 

Richard shook his head. “I’ve been trying for a long time to make that happen. Everyone is loyal to him. They obey his final ruling.”

 

“Maybe it’s not numbers we need,” Daryl said. “If we have the right kind of fire power.”

 

“You said there were a lot of civilians, innocent people living in the Sanctuary,” Rick said to make a point.

 

“They are living under Negan’s rule. Negan is a psychopath and a murderer. Guilt by association,” Daryl commented.

 

Aaron didn’t like how Daryl had turned into someone unfeeling and callous. The person he knew would not want to put innocent people at risk. “We still need a plan,” Aaron offered. “Maybe if we can come up with that we’ll know how many people we need to work with us. We still have some people willing to join us from Hilltop. Let’s not forget that.”

 

Paul came dashing out to meet them. “How’d the meeting go?” he asked, hopeful, but the look on everyone’s faces answered the question for him. “He didn’t go for it.”

 

“The problem is,” Richard said, “we are the ones making the Saviors stronger by supplying them with food and weapons. We have to do something, and we have to do it soon before it’s too late.” He seemed like a man at the end of his rope. He had found hope in the people from Alexandria, but it wasn’t enough to make a difference.

 

They arrived at the gate, and it slid open for them. Rick shook hands with Richard and got his people heading out the gate. Aaron and Daryl were the last to follow. As they approached, Rick moved in front of them and looked at Daryl. “You need to stay here.”

 

“What? Fuck no. I’m going,” Daryl said aggressively.

 

Aaron felt panic in his chest. He had just found Daryl again. He didn’t want to leave him behind. He stepped forward to say something, but Rick put a hand out to stop him. “I need you here,” he said to Daryl. “For one, I don’t need you to risk getting caught by the Saviors. I’m going to need you later when we go up against these guys. And for another, I need you to stay in Ezekiel’s ear, try to convince him to fight this battle with us. The Kingdom is our best shot. You know that. Hilltop doesn’t have enough people, and they don’t have any weapons. Stay here and you’ll be safe, and when it’s time, then you can come back. I just don’t think now is a good time.”

 

Aaron watched Daryl to see what he reaction would be. He wasn’t looking at Rick or Aaron. He was looking off to the side, considering his options. Aaron had a feeling he wasn’t going to agree to this arrangement. “I’ll stay here, too,” Aaron finally offered. That got Daryl’s attention, and he glanced at Aaron. “Whatever it takes. I want you safe, and maybe between the two of us, we can talk some sense into Ezekiel.”

 

“Are you sure? I could really use you right now,” Rick said.

 

“It’s up to Daryl,” Aaron said to him, and he waited to see what Daryl had to say about it. He was silent for the longest time, shifting from one foot to the other. Aaron could sense that Daryl wanted to agree, but whatever chased him away last night was keeping him from complying. “Please,” Aaron said when their eyes locked for a moment. Finally, Daryl nodded and Aaron was relieved.

 

“Okay then. We have to go. I’ll send word just as soon as I know something,” Rick told them, and he left through the gate. Aaron and Daryl stood side by side and watched the others leave until the gates closed. Aaron glanced at Daryl, who was still looking at the gate. He was in another world, but he wasn’t letting Aaron in on it.

 

“I guess I should go tell Ezekiel that I’m staying here, too. I don’t think it will be a problem. He seems like a level headed guy,” Aaron said, breaking the silence.

 

“Too level headed,” Daryl commented.

 

“That’s what we need to talk to him about. Any ideas how we might get him to agree with our plan?”

 

“Well,” Daryl said, walking back toward the courtyard with Aaron in tow. “He’s not stubborn like Gregory, which will make him harder to convince. We’ve asked him, and given him time to think about it, and he still said no. Ezekiel needs a harder push, but I don’t how to do that. That’s what we need to find out.”

 

“Sounds like a plan,” Aaron said, rushing his tread to catch up. When they were shoulder to shoulder, Aaron bumped into him playfully. Daryl’s eyes glanced sideways, but he wouldn’t look at him completely. Some kind of strange tension still divided them. “Want me to see if we can change rooms, since you’re uncomfortable in the one we have now?”

 

“Naw, it’s okay. I don’t know … I was drunk, and … I guess all this talk about the Saviors kind of screwed with my head. I’ll be all right. I just need some time, that’s all,” Daryl said.

 

“You know you can talk to me. You haven’t said much about your time at the Sanctuary,” Aaron said to try and get him to open up.

 

“It sucked,” Daryl said tersely, which also meant he didn’t want to discuss it.

 

“All right. Just know I’m here whenever you want to talk.”

 

Daryl forced a smile and glanced hesitantly at Aaron. “I know you are.”

 

Aaron thought it was a good time to change the subject. “So, you want to get breakfast? I know you’re hungry, and you need to eat a proper meal for once. You’ve lost weight. I could see that.”

 

“You don’t want me getting fat, do you?” Daryl attempted to jest in order to avoid talking about it.

 

“No, but I don’t want you to wither away either.” Aaron pointed toward the mess hall. “I’m buying,” he joked.

 

>>------->

 

Later, Daryl and Aaron settled into their room for the night. Aaron told him about his meeting with Ezekiel. “He had no problem with me staying here. I didn’t want to start in on him about helping Alexandria, but I did ask if we could sit down later and allow me to tell him our story. I thought that maybe if he knew more about all of us, maybe it might soften him.”

 

“You always were the negotiator,” Daryl said.

 

“Doesn’t always work though. The Saviors weren’t buying it when they came early to Alexandria, when Rick and I were out and found that boat,” Aaron remembered.

 

“Yeah, you started to tell me about that, but you didn’t say what happened.” Daryl seemed interested, and as long as he and Aaron kept up a conversation, there wouldn’t be any awkward moments between them. Daryl was still trying to avoid him, at least when it came to sleeping together.

 

Aaron proceeded to tell him about finding the boat and having to navigate a pond full of walkers. Internally, Daryl cringed when Aaron told him about a close call he had. He felt guilty for not being there. And then he felt angry for knowing that Aaron took such a dangerous risk.

 

“Dammit, Aaron, you could have drowned. You could have been bit,” he said with a raised tone. “You shouldn’t be out there risking your life for some canned goods and guns with no ammo.”

 

Aaron remained calm. He didn’t respond at first. They were sitting at the foot of the bed, and Aaron moved back and laid down with his head on his pillow, looking up at the ceiling. He let out a long audible sigh before he spoke, taking a moment to gather his words. “I did it for you. Everything I’ve done lately has been for you,” he said quietly. “They said they were coming back and expected us to deliver half of everything we had. They had already been there once and took half. We had to have something to give them or–” He paused to swallow a lump in his throat. “Or they would send you back in pieces. We knew better than to take Negan’s threats lightly.”

 

Daryl hung his head, the weight of it all pushing down on him. People acting on his behalf, it was too much to think about. He didn’t feel he was worth people’s lives, most of all Aaron’s. If anyone needed to survive it was him. He was a good man. He wasn’t ruined. He could have a future in this world, even without Daryl. “You shouldn’t have given in to his demands. Not for me. You should have let me die and then he wouldn’t have any leverage.”

 

“What did you just say?” Aaron whispered. He sat up and stood from the bed, coming around to stand in front of Daryl. “Why would you say that to me?”

 

“Because I’m just one person, and there were a bunch of you out there risking your lives.” Daryl’s words were spoken without feeling, empty of any emotion. “I’m not worth it.”

 

“That’s bullshit, and you know it,” Aaron said angrily. “You are worth everything to me. Rick thinks of you as his brother. We are all family, and we will go to the ends to save each other.”

 

“Family doesn’t get each other killed.” Daryl looked up at Aaron through his long black hair. His eyes were hidden beneath the strands, but Aaron could still see the tears that threatened. “It was my fault, you know … my fault that Glenn died. He died because of who I am. I act before I think. I speak before realize how my words hurt. I hurt you when I accused you of … you and Jesus. And then I ran away, and that started the chain of events that ended with Glenn and Abraham’s deaths. I’m nothing but shit, so excuse me if I can’t seem to understand why people would risk their lives for me, because I did nothing but bring sorrow.”

 

His words were very dark, very harrowing. It was breaking Aaron’s heart to hear him speak like this. He suddenly felt like he was towering over Daryl, and fell to his knees on the floor in front of him. Now he looked up at his love. “You are the most important person in my life,” Aaron told him. “None of the things you said are true, not from my point of view.”

 

“I ran away, and Glenn came after me. If that didn’t happen, maybe he’d still be alive,” Daryl argued.

 

“Maggie became sick, and fearing for the life of her unborn child, we decided to take her to Hilltop. Is it Maggie’s fault that we were caught in the woods by Negan? Did you ever think of how it would have played out if you didn’t run off? Glenn would have still ended up in the exact same place, because he would have been with Maggie,” Aaron countered.

 

“But it was me,” Daryl cried in a voice that Aaron had never heard before. It was that of a man at the end of all things. “I’m the one who got out of line. I’m the one who punched Negan. I couldn’t listen. I couldn’t conform. That’s why Glenn died. That’s why I deserved everything that happened to me in that place. I wanted to escape. I wanted to go home. I wanted to be with you again. But now I feel like I don’t deserve any of it, and I’m still a danger to you, especially if the Saviors find me.”

 

Aaron felt a tear run down his cheek because of Daryl’s admission. How could he feel this way? After everything they had been through so far, how could he ever think he didn’t deserve to be happy? Aaron moved between Daryl’s legs and wrapped his arms around his waist. He buried his head in Daryl’s chest and held him tight. “You scare me when you talk like this. I feel like there isn’t anything I can say that will sway you away from your own thoughts. I don’t know what happened to you, but you are stronger than anything they put you through.”

 

Daryl rested his head on top of Aaron’s. It felt good to be in his arms again, but there was still a barrier that he couldn’t break through. “That’s why I’ve got you … to remind me of that now and then.”

 

Aaron lifted his head and stared into Daryl’s eyes. “Come to bed now.” He stood from his position on the floor and laid down on his side of the bed. Daryl was hesitant and he dared to look over his shoulder. “Just to sleep … Like old times,” Aaron smiled at him.

 

His words sparked an old memory. Daryl remembered it vividly. They were at the cabin. Aaron had admitted his feelings for Daryl, but there was still turmoil in his heart. He had spent most of the night telling Aaron his story, of where and how he grew up, of the horrors that fell upon him as a teen, and how he had hid from himself for years afterwards. Talking to Aaron renewed his soul. Daryl spoke of things he’d never told another person before. He trusted Aaron with his past, and in doing so, he learned to deal with his demons. But he was also afraid of what would come of admitting those secrets aloud. He didn’t want to be alone that night, but he wasn’t in a place where he was comfortable with his true identity yet. As Aaron was about to go to his room, Daryl called out to him, asked him to stay the night, and then added, just to sleep so there wouldn’t be any misunderstandings. Now Aaron was saying this to him again, and Daryl was at another crucial point in his life when things didn’t make sense.

 

Daryl stood and walked around to his side of the bed. Aaron was laying on his side, watching to see what Daryl would do. He sat down, took of his shoes and laid down next to Aaron, on his back looking at the ceiling. He could feel Aaron’s eyes upon him, but the slow steady sound of his breathing meant he was relaxed. Just to sleep, Daryl thought again, and he closed his eyes. He laid there and thought about telling Aaron the truth, but it would mean revisiting that cell, and the smells and sounds. The first time Daryl opened up to Aaron, the trauma had happened years earlier. This had only been weeks … days. It was too new to speak of. What would Aaron think of him once he learned that another man had . . .

 

Maybe he could talk about the rest. It might help him. Aaron was a good listener. They shared everything and that shouldn’t change. They were always honest with each other. That’s what made their relationship so strong. Once the lies started, it would slowly rip them apart. But not telling someone something wasn’t the same as lying. You could only lie if you told a false story. Technically is wasn’t lying, Daryl convinced himself, yet deep down he knew he was wrong to keep it a secret.

 

He listened to Aaron’s breathing. It had slowed a bit more. He was drifting off to sleep. If Daryl didn’t say something now, he never would. “They kept me in a cell, a darkened room, concrete block, solid metal door,” Daryl said. It was more difficult than he imagined, to start talking about it.

 

Aaron shifted and raised his head. His arm came up, and he anchored it under his head so that Daryl would know he was listening. Aaron didn’t speak, he would only listen. Daryl went on.

 

“When I got there, they took my clothes, left me naked in that room. It was cold … so cold. There ain’t nothing worse than not being able to get warm.” Daryl paused. He shivered at the memory. “There was no food, just a small amount of water every now and then, enough to keep me alive. And this song kept playing over and over. It was loud, made my ears ring whenever they turned it off.”

 

“They were trying to confuse you,” Aaron said.

 

“They were trying to break me,” Daryl told him.

 

“Why? Did they want information?” Aaron wondered.

 

“Naw. It was Negan. He said he saw something in me, something special. He never intended to let me go back. He wanted me to join his organization, and he knew I wouldn’t do it willingly.” Daryl stopped, letting it sink in. What did Negan see? What part of him made Negan want to keep him? It was different from how Aaron saw him. It stemmed back to Daryl’s past, the person he used to be, the way he was raised, the people he associated with. That’s who Negan saw potential in. It was a part of Daryl that he’d never been able to completely be rid of. People like Negan could always sense it, and they always tried to turn him back into the man he used to be. Maybe that was the true Daryl, and the one he’d been with Aaron was a front, someone he tried to be but could never really turn into.

 

Aaron thought what Daryl told him so far sounded awful, but he knew Daryl, and this wasn’t enough to make him change the way he had. He was distant, even with Aaron. Their first night together was so tense, Daryl ended up fleeing from their room. Something else happened to him, but he hadn’t gotten that far in the story. Aaron wondered if he would admit it at all.

 

“Eventually they gave me food, only because they didn’t want to kill me. I had that hope, at least. They gave me clothes, and told me that I had to start earning me keep once they started feeding me. The tradeoff sucked. I had to work the fence. That meant chaining walkers to the outer perimeter, cleaning up the ones that deteriorated, and changing out the weaker ones in the front for stronger ones. I did this in exchange for dog food. That’s all they would feed me.”

 

“Jesus,” Aaron whispered in disgust. He rolled onto his side, facing Daryl, and placed a hand on his arm. When Daryl didn’t flinch, he relaxed.

 

“When I was strong enough, they started dangling prizes in front of me like a carrot to a donkey. They showed me this little apartment with a bed and a stove, a table and a chair, and bookshelves with lots of books.” Daryl briefly glanced at Aaron and the corner of his mouth curled slightly. “I thought about you when I saw them, how you’d love to have some new books you haven’t read yet.”

 

Aaron smiled and squeezed Daryl’s arm, glad to know he had been in Daryl’s thoughts while he was being tortured.

 

Daryl continued. “Negan said it could all be mine, and I could be one of his ‘top guys’, as he put it, if I’d just do one thing. He asked me, ‘Who are you?’ and I was supposed to say, ‘Negan’. That’s how they all answer, you know. That’s why that prick at the satellite station said his name was Negan. It’s not just a name, it’s an operation.”

 

“Did you do it?” Aaron asked.

 

Daryl thought about this, because in the end, when he was killing the kid known as Joey, he felt himself changing, conforming, reverting back into someone he had always hated, but that had always been a part of him. Aaron chased that demon away, but Negan conjured it again. It was Jesus who kept him from plunging into the darkness. Daryl had been right at the edge of that disastrous abyss when Jesus came around the corner and called out to him. They escaped shortly after that.

 

“No,” Daryl finally answered, his thought still on Jesus. Why hadn’t he asked him about the scene he came upon when he found Daryl? It wasn’t the fact that he found Daryl killing someone. Daryl had killed. It was nothing new to him. It was the way he was doing it, the rage that was behind every strike with the metal pipe. Joey was dead. He’d been dead since the second or third hit, but Daryl kept going, just like Negan had done to Abraham and to Glenn. But it was the cause of that rage that Daryl kept secret.

 

“Negan threw me back in my cell. He was pissed, but he controlled it. He couldn’t kill me. I mean, he could have, but he didn’t want to. He still wanted to break me, and what happened next was part of it.” Daryl took a deep breath and continued. “The next time I was given food, I didn’t hear the lock click. I tried the door and it was open. I thought it was a mistake. The guy just forgot. I should have known better, but I just wanted out of that place. I took the bait, left the cell, quietly made my way out of the building, only to be surrounded by them. It was a trap. They set the whole thing up, deliberately left the door unlocked. Negan wanted to see what I would do with that. He was testing me to see how far I’d come along in his process of changing my way of thinking. Negan came out. He threatened me, yelled at me, gave me another chance to give him the right answer. I didn’t do it. Strike two, I thought. In return, his men beat the fucking shit out of me, within an inch of my pathetic life. I won’t lie when I say I almost wish they had killed me, because what came after the beating–”

 

Daryl was so wrapped up in his story, so close to reliving those moments, he almost told Aaron what happened in his cell with Brady. He wanted to. His soul screamed out to tell Aaron everything. No secrets. No hiding. Aaron would understand. He hesitated and swallowed the words, berating himself internally for almost telling everything to Aaron. It was better that he didn’t know. Daryl would just deal with it himself, just like he had when he was a kid.

 

“Why? What happened?” Aaron asked anxiously.

 

Daryl shook his head and spoke quietly. “Nothing, just more of the same shit. In the end, someone helped me escape, and it wasn’t Jesus. He was still trying to find a way inside when he found me. Someone left a note, a key, and a way out. I still don’t know who it was, but I’d like to thank them some day. Doubt I’ll ever know though.” He somehow managed to reel himself in from the memories of his ordeal and the Sanctuary. He told Aaron as much as he was willing to share, and didn’t run away like he did last night. The night was still young, though.

 

“I’d like to thank him too, because I got you back,” Aaron said. “I spent enough time worrying and wringing my hands to know that I don’t like this life without you in it.”

 

Daryl rolled towards him, and looked deep into Aaron’s eyes. “You were all that kept me going, and I remembered what you taught me, to always stay true to who I am. I did that to the best of my ability, even when I started to doubt myself.” He moved closer until their lips were almost touching. “I’m glad I’m here too.” He kissed Aaron, but it was simple and sweet. That was all he could allow for now.

 

Aaron understood, and when they were finished with the kiss, Aaron rolled away from him, but he pushed his back against Daryl’s front and settled into the contour of their bodies. They were finally together, alone and safe for now. They would both sleep sound for the first time in weeks because they had each other. Neither one knew how long that would last. It might be their only opportunity.

 

Daryl waited a few minutes, and then he draped his arm over Aaron’s waist. He felt Aaron’s hand come up and pet his arm. Then their fingers linked together. “I love you,” Daryl whispered. It was one of the few times he said it first.

 

“I love you too,” Aaron answered, and they both drifted off to sleep.

 

>>------->

 

In the morning, Daryl got up before Aaron and dressed. He was glad for the restful night, but now he was anxious to see what needed to happen next. Rick wanted him to stay behind and talk to Ezekiel. Daryl knew he was the wrong man for the job. Daryl wasn’t good at convincing anyone of anything, and when he tried, it usually ended with yelling and disagreement. He could already tell that Ezekiel wouldn’t take kindly to Daryl’s way of negotiations. Aaron would be the better man for the job, if he wanted to go that route. He did, however, like talking with Richard. They got along well when Jesus introduced them. They didn’t talk specifics, but they seemed to see things the same way. Maybe if he talked to Richard about Ezekiel, get a feel for the guy, find out what his story was, then Daryl could at least relate the information back to Aaron. If Aaron wanted to speak with Ezekiel he could be better prepared with some inside information.

 

He went onto the breezeway that looked out over the courtyard. People were already up and about. He could smell breakfast cooking in the mess hall kitchen. The day was well underway, and Daryl realized he might have slept in longer than he thought. He had no concept of time anymore. In Alexandria, he could tell by the position of the sun as it came in through the bedroom window. Here, in the Kingdom, the buildings were tall and the sun didn’t get bright until it finally broke over the rooftops.

 

Looking around at the different people, they seemed peaceful. Mothers were reading to their little ones. Fathers were playing catch with their older children. Those of teenage years were doing chores, and there were plenty of those is seemed. Young men and women gathered in a group with their leader, and started jogging around the perimeter of the courtyard. They were dressed like soldiers with minimal armor. There was a group of young people gathered in a seating area, singing in harmony, and another group having a discussion about a book they had all read. Life here was very much as it used to be, but Daryl had a sense that these people weren’t like the ones he met in Alexandria. They knew exactly what was out there. They weren’t in denial, but they didn’t live in fear either. They kept themselves ready for anything that might happen. They trained and then taught future generations. After all, life was going on even with the dead walking. The Kingdom was exactly what Rick was trying to do in Alexandria, produce a safe place to live where people could return to their roots, but also be prepared for the dangers that always lurked outside of the fences. This was all fine and dandy, but the fact was, there was a war brewing, and Daryl couldn’t just sit around picking cantaloupe, waiting for someone tell him it was time to go. He needed to do something useful.

 

He walked to the end of the breezeway where there was a set of stairs that led to the second floor of the building or to the sidewalk below. There was a place at the end of the building where their cars and trucks were parked, and he saw Morgan talking to Benjamin. It looked like they just got back from somewhere. They looked a little distraught, and Daryl wondered what happened. Then Daryl noticed that Morgan didn’t have his walking stick. He waited until Morgan was done talking to Benjamin and the kid left, then he approached.

 

“Hey, you all just get back from somewhere?” he asked, but Morgan wasn’t saying anything. He didn’t look like he wanted to talk at all. Daryl had to admit that the guy got under his skin like a splinter you couldn’t dig out. Maybe Richard was right when he warned that he thought Morgan got to Ezekiel with his ‘no kill’ policy. That shit bugged the crap out of Daryl.

 

Taking a closer look, Daryl saw blood on Morgan’s ear and became suspicious. “You went out and met them, didn’t you?” Daryl pointed at Morgan’s ear. “They do that to you too? And you still think you can keep the peace with them?” Daryl said accusingly. Morgan reached up and wiped his ear, looked at his fingers and saw the blood.

 

“Got a little roughed up, nothing much,” Morgan said.

 

“Maybe this time, but you know it’s just gonna get worse, and still you want to sit around and play Mary Poppins.” Daryl narrowed his eyes and stared at Morgan. This guy was really pissing him off. “What the hell is wrong with you? If Carol was here, if she knew about Glenn and Abraham, she’d be out there doing something, hunting them down, not taking it like a bitch.”

 

“I know she would, and that’s why she left,” Morgan returned.

 

Daryl didn’t like the fact that Morgan thought he knew Carol better than him. There was something in Morgan’s eyes that wasn’t quite right, and Daryl thought the man knew more than he was saying. What happened with Carol, he wondered? Why’d she leave the way she did? Morgan knew something about her, but he wasn’t saying. Another mystery to solve. He huffed, turned and walked away from Morgan, walking back the way he came. “Fuck this shit,” he muttered to himself. He was tired of waiting, and he knew there wasn’t anything he could say to Ezekiel to convince him to join Alexandria. Daryl needed to do something productive, to contribute, but he needed to figure out where he would be the most helpful.

 

He was walking past the archery practice grounds when he saw Richard shooting arrows from a traditional bow. He could see a table full of archery weapons, and one in particular caught his eye, a crossbow. He remembered Richard saying something about an idea he had when he was drinking with him and Jesus. Maybe now was the time to find out what Richard had in mind. At least he was willing to get the ball rolling. Depending on his plan, maybe Daryl could work with him and take their idea to Ezekiel. It was worth a try, so they went across the yard and walked up to Richard.

 

“Good morning,” Richard greeted right before he loosed an arrow. The arrow went left of the target. “I thought I better start learning to use one of these. Bullets won’t last forever.” He put the bow down to his side and turned to Daryl. “I hear you’re a damn fine bowman.” He pointed to the table of weapons. “See anything you like?”

 

Daryl had already eyed a crossbow similar to the one Dwight stole. He didn’t realize until now just how much he missed his weapon and the feel of it in his hands and on his back. A gun or a knife just wasn’t the same. He could use both, and he had since losing his bow, but this was what he was most comfortable with. He picked it up carefully, seductively, ran a hand along its body, and stared down its length. He was beginning to feel empowered again, if only just a bit. While checking over the weapon, he spoke. “So, you mentioned something earlier about a plan?”

 

“I’ve got an idea, yeah,” Richard said. “Haven’t shared it with anyone yet, but it just might be a way to get a fire started under Ezekiel’s ass, and get him off his throne.”

 

Daryl looked through the scope on the crossbow and lined up the target. He fired it and took notice of the kickback. It felt different, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t get used to. He moaned quietly. God, it felt good to fire it, and he imagined Negan’s head in place of the target.

 

“Whatcha got in mind?” Daryl asked, still checking the weapon.

 

“We can’t talk about it here. Besides, I’d rather show you. Feel like going for a hike?” Richard smiled slyly.

 

He really should see Aaron first. Daryl left before he woke up, and after his panic attack yesterday, he was afraid Aaron would send a search party this time.

 

“It won’t take long,” Richard said to convince him when he saw that Daryl was hesitating.

 

“All right,” Daryl agreed, and he left, again, without telling Aaron where he was going.



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