He used to flinch and pull away for a lot of reasons, mainly because he'd learned by example that most touches were anything but kind. It didn't matter if the blows had come from his Pa, Merle, or one of the older kids at school; he'd figured out early that people rarely acted like his mama said they should.
He could list a dozen different reasons, but deep down, he figured it was because everything he touched turned to ash. Everything he'd ever taken a chance on had either been ripped away or hadn't stuck around long enough for him to have to watch it wither and die. For a long time he'd figured that was just how life was for someone like him. Hell, he'd spent close to three decades living it – breathing in a reality that wasn't just rough around the edges, but razor sharp and angry. Where no one did you no favors, and if they did they either had their hand out or their finger poised on the trigger of the gun they'd press into your spine just when you thought it was safe to let your guard down.
All else considered it wasn't surprising that he'd shied away from it. From…people. It was safer that way. But then the news started airing broadcasts about civil unrest along the east coast, gibbering on about some new virus or disease. Something different and wrong in every way mankind instinctually feared. A week later the news was drowning in reports as Las Vegas and half of Austin, Texas burned to the ground. Barely having time to cover the mass migration south before the Mexican border was completely overrun as hundreds of thousands of people fled through the bordering states. And before he could really process it, he'd found himself stuck in a quarry with a bunch of city slickers that didn't know their own asshole from a tea kettle when it came to staying alive out in the sticks.
He'd separated himself from the others early on. Dragging his tent to the far side of the RV and counting on Merle to do the rest. And like always, all Merle had really had to do was be himself. Brash, crude, and drugged up to the gills and soon enough the others had gotten the message. …Mostly.
You'd think that with the end of the world, people would have stopped taking chances on long shots and maybes and just left him the hell alone. Because despite trying to keep the others at an arm's length, Rick, Glenn, Dale, Carol – the lot of them had only started to gravitate closer. After the CDC and the highway it had gotten worse. He wasn't sure how, or even why, but he couldn't for the life of him figure out how to make it stop. …How he could stop.
And while all his experience told him otherwise, as the weeks passed and they'd settled in on the farm, he found himself flinching less. He found himself forgetting to pull away, forgetting that he wasn't supposed to care, that he shouldn't. So in reality, he didn't have anyone to blame but himself.
He knew in the back of his mind that it was only a matter of time before it came back to bite him in the ass. And eventually it did, what with Sophia and the barn. Only for once, it hadn't stayed that way, because the others were still there. He hadn't known what to make of it back then. But he sure as hell hadn't questioned it.
For once in his life, he hadn't wanted to.
But the real kicker was that sometime over the winter he'd stopped entirely. He couldn't exactly put a finger on when, but it had happened nonetheless. Perhaps he'd simply forgotten. Perhaps he'd just gotten too comfortable; lulled into the same false sense of security that the others seemed to hold onto like a tot does to its mother's apron strings. He'd let them get too close, he'd let himself care. And worse, he realized that sometime during that same stretch of time that marked their escape from the farm, he'd started touching them back.
To be honest, he wasn't sure what that made him. What it made him when he knew it was only a matter of time before something went wrong. But fool or not, he couldn't seem to stop himself. And at the end of the day he certainly couldn't stop them, even if he'd wanted to.
It'd started off with the little things. Like that moment in Hershel's parlor when Lori had come up to him. Her face tight with worry and stress, a mess of tangled hair and wide, panicked eyes as she'd touched his arm. The gesture so honest that he'd nearly lost it right then and there. He hadn't shaken her off then. Maybe he should have. But he hadn't. There had been something in her tone that had stopped him. Something that had muted even the tamest voice of descent he could muster.
Or maybe it'd been when Dale, only a day or two earlier, had rested a hand on his shoulder when his effort to plead Randal's case had failed. Disappointment and resignation highlighting his expression as he voiced what everyone hadn't wanted to admit. That somewhere along the line they'd broken instead of bent and had lost something of themselves in the process. The old man had been trying to tell them that the infection hadn't just brought death and destruction, but something worse, something that would ruin them completely if they let it.
Perhaps it had all started there. Or maybe that was just when he'd started noticing. Honestly, he couldn't remember which. Because before he knew it, it seemed like it was fuckin' open season. Like the others had just assumed that it was okay to get all familiar and shit. He'd tried to pull away, to put some distance between him and their overly familiar manhandling. But every time he tried, he just got reeled in all the tighter.
Carol's touches were the worst, partially because they were inconsistent and partially because, well, it was her. Her touches were subtle and flighty, made up of a flurry of accidental brushes and tentative squeezes. It was like the woman was walking on egg shells one minute. Only to turn around, sneak past all his guards and press her hand across the span of his chest in the next.
They were moments that'd come to define his days. Revolving around the feeling of those small little fingers trailing down his skin, sometimes curling around his arm or trailing down the length his side before sashaying away again. Going back to treating him with kid gloves before he could even so much as recover from the action itself. And unlike the touches of the others, he felt her hands on his skin for hours afterwards.
It was utterly madding – and worse? He was beginning to suspect that she was doing it on purpose.
By the time he found himself touching her back he wasn't sure if he hated it or was just getting used to it. But either way he figured that in this case, actions spoke louder than words. Because once he started, he couldn't bring himself to stop. Lord knows he'd tried. But he'd be god damned if it'd gotten him anywhere.
The point was that regardless of whether he was touchin' her, or she was touchin' him, it was god damned distracting. And predictably, that was what ended up coming back to bite him in the ass.
Maybe three or four months after they'd been run off the farm, they were forced to make camp in the clearing behind a small highway rest stop. Haunting the back corner of the rundown picnic area that looked like it'd been abandoned long before the infection. It was strewn with trash, rotted vinyl tarps and moldy wooden fences. Basically everything a B-rated horror movie starts out with right before the first expendable character dies in order to make whatever impossible situation they were calling a plot seem serious. Or at least that was how Glenn and Beth had described it when they'd arrived anyway.
He'd been busy oiling the wires of his crossbow, sitting close to the fire for light. And she had been leaning over the fire. Stirring the pot of canned beans and creamed corn Glenn and Maggie had salvaged from the gas station about three miles west of where they were camped. It was slim pickings, but it was better than nothing.
She'd stuck close all evening. Nearly always within his line of sight and undeniably present even when she wasn't. In fact, by sunset, she'd nearly driven him mental with her flighty touches and off-tune humming. With the way her hips swayed as she walked and the completely inappropriate grunt of sound that issued from her throat whenever she bent down or reached over to pick something up. All else considered, it was pretty fuckin' hard to concentrate with her around. She was just so- Christ.
It continued like that for hours, only this time when she got up to stir their dinner, the seemingly accidental brush of her hand across the small of his back did far more than simply ruffle his feathers. He'd been so focused on what he was doing that he hadn't even heard her approach. And consequentially, he jumped. Slicing his palm clean down the center with one of the tension wires he'd been in the middle of greasing.
"Son of a bitch!" He hissed, cussing out a blue streak as he dropped the bow and leapt to his feet with a strangled yelp. Barely noticing the muffled clang as Carol nearly upset the soup pot. Dripping creamed corn down the side as she threw the spoon into the pot and hurried over.
He curled his lip at the offending bow string, nudging the bow with his foot as he leaned down to get a better look at the damage. He gritted his teeth as his injured palm throbbed. The pain matching his mood as his molars ground together in frustration and self-disgust. -A beaded line of crimson dripped off the string, running down the length of the wire until it trickled off the end. The thin string was split down by the second connector, painted red with blood and grease and was completely beyond salvaging.
Christ on a crutch, he'd broken it clean in two!
Shit, he was on his last god damned replacement too. Once he got the damn thing restrung he was going to have to make a run to a supply store. Runnin' around with no replacement was just asking for trouble, especially these days.
"Are you alright?" Carol asked quietly. Standing so close behind him that when he turned around he nearly brushed across her front. Getting a front row seat to the concern etched across her face as she tried to get a look at his hand.
"Peachy." He snapped. Tone harsh and with embarrassment and frustration as he dropped down on his haunches, holding his hand closer to the flames in an effort get a better look at it.
Blood dripped through his fingers and hissed into the fire as his filthy nails probed the cut. Trying to gauge how deep it was without ripping into it any further. Shit, just re-stringing the fuckin' thing with a bum hand was going to be bitch!
"Let me take a look." Carol replied, big blue eyes reflecting in the firelight as she moved forward, keeping pace with him when he took a step backwards in return. Not keen on letting her get too close as he tried to snag the rag in his back pocket and inch backwards at the same time.
But apparently he couldn't do both. Because suddenly she was right in front of him, inches away and insistent. With steel in the back of her eyes as she reached forward.
He raised his hand to his mouth with a jerk. Trying to cover the action with a cough as blood dribbled between his fingers and down his forearm. Catching near the elbow before falling down to earth like a handful of crimson tears. Making the fire hiss and spit as the sounds of the others buzzing around in the background became strangely muted.
"I can do it." She insisted. Her voice soft but steel-edged with determination as she extended her hand towards him, looking pointedly at his injured hand as blood started welling up between his fingers. Only this time it appeared that she was waiting for permission before she tried again.
He wasn't sure what made him do it, but he finally relented.
"It aint deep." He grunted, letting the moment grow stale before he finally inclined his head. Giving her permission to continue as she gently captured his hand in hers. All smooth tips and ridiculously thin fingers as she examined the wound with a practiced eye.
"- said I'm fine." He tried again, making a half aborted movement to free himself as she hummed under her breath. Figuring she'd lose interest when she saw it wasn't serious.
But Carol was having none of it.
"Just let me, please?" She asked. Voice so velvet soft and vulnerable that he knew he'd lost that particular battle long before he'd even started.
Son of a-
"…It's your time to waste." He rasped, figuring that stood for enough of an answer when she smiled in return. Directing him to sit down and wait as she hurried over to her pile of things.
She moved quickly once she was away from him. Grabbing her medical pouch and the bottle of iodine they'd scavenged from that looted doctor's office about fifty miles outside of Bremen the month before. In fact, she moved like she was afraid he'd scuttle away and tend his wounds in private if she didn't get a move on. And to be honest, she wasn't half wrong.
The woman had his number alright. He didn't know how it'd happened, but somehow she'd managed to get under his skin. She'd inched her way in when he wasn't looking and now it was too late for the both of them. It was too late to go back to the way things used to be, before the highway and Atlanta. Hell, it was probably too late for him to even want to go back if he was being honest.
But before he could work himself up about it, she was back. Crowding in close, all soft breaths and gentle brushes as her bare arms ghosted across his. And somewhat predictably, any protests he'd been planning on voicing melted away like mist on a summer morning.
She wet a clean scrap of cloth with water from her canteen and started to work. Smearing clear tracks through the fresh blood that had welled up around the cut as she sopped up the blood and greasing oil that had collected between his fingers.
He swallowed hard as his hand dwarfed her tiny palm. Everything about her seemed so small compared to him. Hands, fingers, nails, and knuckles. Hell, she barely even had knuckles! She was a contradiction between strength and delicacy and to be honest he had no idea what to think about it.
His brain nearly stuttered when her nails raked across his skin. Her long fingers tangling with his as she examined the cut from every angle, holding on to him in way that made his chest tighten just a little bit further every time he chanced a look down.
Shit, what was he doing?! He had to get away; he had to do something, anything!
Except he didn't.
In fact, now that he had the opportunity, he used her distraction as permission to take her in. The first detail was easy. She sported a collection of freckles that ran from wrist to collarbone, flecking across her skin in meaningless patterns and off-center spirals, darkened by fullness of her tan as they ran down the length of her. It was something that he always came back to whenever he let his mind wander. There was something tantalizing about them, something forbidden and intriguing.
But that wasn't all, because as his gaze traveled down the curve of her cheek he realized that somewhere along the line she'd lost the fullness in her face. The type of roundness that heralds that of comfort and plenty, of three meals a day, a full night's sleep, and no worries past making sure the laundry gets done on time or the state of one's refrigerator before a weekend of company. Yet somehow, the thinness looked good on her, highlighting the delicate arcs of her cheekbones in a way that made her entire face light up.
He raised his eyes after a few long moments. Somehow tearing himself away from the way her fingers were trailing down his skin, only to inadvertently share a look with the woman that made both their cheeks heat.
Christ. What the hell was he doing?!
"This might hurt some." She cautioned, mercifully changing the subject as she leaned over to retrieve the tin of bandages from the kit. It took a bit of finagling, but it wasn't long before she was balancing his hand and the bag of cotton balls in her lap, sopping up the last of the blood as she started rooting through her bag for the bottle of disinfectant.
He snorted, half in amusement and half in derision. He'd hurt himself worse fuckin' shaving. Hell, worse wrestlin' with Merle when he was a kid and he had the scars to prove it. He had a tougher hide than the lot of them put together, pock-marked with more scar tissue than skin. - For fucks sakes, he'd fallen down the side of a ravine, pierced his side with one of his own arrows and nearly taken a bullet to the brain all in one day, and the woman thought he couldn't handle a little pain?
The only thing was that he'd been so busy watchin' her that he hadn't noticed her free hand going for the iodine. And as a result he yelped and jumped halfway to the moon when she daubed the stinging liquid onto his skin.
He watched the muscles in her cheek pull taunt when he grunted. Exhaling harshly as she pressed the soaked cotton into the cut and held it there. Her eyes growing unsettled and guarded as he nearly yanked his hand away on pure reflex. Gnawing on the inside of his cheek as his hand fuckin' burned.
It was the expression on her face that finally did it. Because that was the moment when he suddenly realized that it wasn't all one sided. That they'd both come into this with their own reasons for keeping their distance. It was an expression that told him in no uncertain terms that this moment; this gesture wasn't really about him at all. It was about them. It was about how far they'd come and how much they were willing to risk on this. ...Whatever this was.
It was about taking a chance, not looking before you leaped, and taking it on faith that it was all going to work out in the end. It was about everything he wasn't good at, but willing to try if it meant having her. …If it meant having a chance. Slim or nothin' he'd take it.
Because wasn't until she bit her lip and pulled back. Watching him carefully from behind the fan of her lashes that it suddenly occurred to him that while they'd once had good reason to flinch and shy away, those reasons were long gone. They'd died with Ed, his Pa, Merle, and the whole fucking world the day virus had gone airborne.
Hell, maybe it was even time to start doing the opposite for a change. Maybe it was time to start taking ground instead of giving it.
And as if she sensed the nature of his thoughts, she caught his eye as she reached for the gauze. Her full lips curving upwards into a tentative smile as she captured his gaze and held it, bold as fuckin' brass. And he'd be lying if he said he hadn't stared right back.
All else considered she was a weathered mess of big blue eyes and fire-brightened cheeks. Her skin was smudged with dirt and her short hair was spiked into off-centre cowlicks. Clashing oddly with her faded blue tank top and the peach colored pullover she'd tied around her waist. She was tired and dirty, yet strangely content all at the same time. And to be honest, he wouldn't have had her any other way.
There was just something about her that made him want to-
He was pulled out of his thoughts when her fingers ghosted over his. Capturing them one by one as she brought them in to the palm of her hand, washing them from cracked nails to bruised knuckles without even so much as a word to the contrary. Apparently immune to his proximity as he bit down on the inside of his cheek and watched. In fact it was all he could do just to keep up. Because she seemed to have about six hands and just enough flexibility to keep pressure on the wound as she worked. Apparently set on stemming the worst of the flow before she dressed it.
He choked on his own spit when the underside of her breast brushed against his arm, feeling remarkably as though as all the air had just been sucked out of the room as thin fabric met with naked skin. He bit down on the inside of his cheek until he tasted raw copper, motionless and barely breathing as she replaced the cloth with a handful of gauze. Giving no sign she'd noticed his reaction as the sound of the others unloading the vehicles somewhere behind them echoed through the clearing.
For fucks sakes, the woman was going to be the fuckin' death of him!
In the end, he wasn't sure how it'd happened. Having been hyper vigilant of everything from the thrum of her heartbeat to the nervous twitch in her right knee, but somehow he got lost in it. Lost in the thrill of her nails coasting across his skin and the tiny pin pricks of pleasure that followed in the wake of every touch, every breath, every god damn inadvertent caress.
He got lost in the feeling of being tended to. Drinking in that handful of moments that marked where their faces were only inches apart. Moments where he could smell the scent of her, musky and sharp as the wind teased through her greying hair. There was a sort of intimacy to the moment that he didn't quite understand, but ultimately craved at the same time.
Hell, he was already convinced that even if he had the rest of his life, he'd never make sense of it - even if he wanted to.
It was only when he chanced a look down and found the wound already bandaged that he realized she'd finished some time ago. He blinked. Christ, when the hell had that happened? He hadn't even noticed when she'd put away the gauze and started wrapping.
But then that meant that-
And sure enough, when his eyes flickered back down he found his hand, bandage and all, still cradled in hers. And for a long moment everything just stopped. Because the meaning behind it was unmistakable, there wasn't any more dirt to clean or wound left to mend. It was just him, her, and her fingers rubbing slow circles into his skin. She was laying her hands on him of her own free will. This wasn't about his wounds or something born of consideration and misguided kindness – it was about something else. …Something more.
It was soothing, he decided, soothing, thrilling, and just a little bit terrifying all at the same time.
He didn't say a word when her hands curled around his shoulders. Forcing himself to still and look straight ahead as her fingers kneaded into his skin. Sending bolts of pleasure shooting down his spine as she got into it, digging in and showing no mercy as the length of her front pressed flush across his back.
Jesus fucking chri-
She was so close that he could feel her breath on his skin. Little gusts of exertion that chased the goose bumps that were spreading across the span of his shoulders as her palms rasped across his skin - seeking every knot of muscle, every abused patch of skin that had even so much as twinged over the past year before soothing it into obscurity. A strange mix of pain and pleasure coasting in the background as his nerves fuckin' sang.
He muffled a groan into the back of his hand as her fingers dipped low; rubbing circles into the small of his back as every nerve he didn't know he had throbbed into the forefront. Nearly squirming in place as a strange mix of pleasure and distress rocketed through him, sending tension and uncertainty leaching from his skin like water from a sieve.
He bit back a moan of appreciation as her nails raked across a knot of scar tissue, smoothing over the raised skin before circling back and digging deep. He was able to muffle the sound, but only just. – Except something in his posture must have alerted her because right in the middle of tracing her fingers down the length of his spine, she suddenly stopped.
She cleared her throat as the moment dragged. He could practically hear the alarm bells as she stiffened; putting a modicum of space between them as if she'd only just noticed how close they'd strayed. The tension in his shoulders felt like lead weights as she swayed to her feet. Appearing to come to some sort of decision as she bent down and started collecting her things, zipping up the first aid kit and tucking away the rest of the supplies as she moved away. …The moment effectively broken.
He looked down at his feet, cursing venomously under his breath as he curled his injured hand into a tight fist. A caustic mix of anger, self-loathing, and disappointment flooding through him as his hand burned and the bandages bled clear though. Tinting the world with a haze of red that seemed to envelop everything it touched. Stinking of cowardice and missed chances as he sat there and listened to her walk away.
But then, before he could even so much as catalog the movement, she was suddenly just there, standing right in front of him as if she'd never left, lips curling upwards into a knowing smile as she smoothed her dirty shirt over the span of her hips. Playful yet guarded. Almost as if she was just as unsure as he was, but willing take that slim-forget-to-look-before-you-leap-type-of-chance just so long as it meant that at the end of the day she got the opportunity to try for something more.
…Something like this.
He inhaled roughly as a flush of heat rose up her neck. Spreading across her skin like a blush as he finally met her eyes. This time finding himself unable to look away, no matter how much his brain was screaming at him, as she sunk down on her haunches and extended her hand towards him.
"Com'on, I want to show you something." She hummed, indicating off towards the circle of tents with a roll of her shoulder. Breaking the silence almost flippantly, like it hadn't cost her anything to speak first. To take that first step, the first leap into that grey area he'd been so careful to avoid.
…At least until now.
For a long moment he simply stared. Seeing everything on her face that he imagined was on his own. Trepidation, fear, confidence, longing, uncertainty and determination, all wrapped up in the type of feeling that comes when you suddenly realize that everything you're feeling is mutual. And that win or lose, you're going down together.
So in the end, perhaps that was why he took her hand. His grip feather light and gentle as he finally let her pull him to his feet. Leaving his crossbow where it'd fallen as the silhouette of the woman's tent peeked through the haze of wood smoke and fog.
Only instead of releasing her, his hand lingered, holding her small palm in his as he cleared his throat and straightened. Showing her, in his own way, as her eyes flickered down to where they were joined, that he'd taken that first step with her.
She laced their fingers together without a word. Cool and easy as his hand tightened around hers. Squeezing once before loosening his grip, his hands nervous and unsure until a small smile spread across her face at his boldness. Making a pleased sound in the back of her throat as she squeezed his fingers in return, apparently content to let the moment stand before she started tugging him forward. Leading him, like the Pied Piper to his flock, towards the ring of tents that was just visible through the late night fog.
And for the first time in a long time, the feeling of someone's hand closing around his was a good thing.