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She's Breathing

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Daryl’s reaction was entirely instinctive. He heard the sound of the gun, he saw the red splash of blood across her sunny blond hair, and before he even realized what was happening his gun was in the air. He didn’t see the look of shock on the woman’s face or notice whatever words she was mouthing at him. Everything inside of him was red hot anger and rage, covering a throbbing sense of pain and anguish, all wrapped up in a thread of pure cold. He shot, watching but not really seeing the woman’s head snap back or her body fall to the ground. He noticed but didn’t really feel the grip of Carol’s hand on his shoulder. He heard but didn’t really listen to the sound of Rick’s voice and his hollow useless words.

Daryl pulled free from Carol’s hand and dropped to his knees with one word on his lips: “Beth.”

It wasn’t until he began to scoop her up into his arms that he realized. She was breathing. He had her cradled to his chest and in the process he leaned over her and with his ear so close to her lips he heard the soft intake of breath and felt the warm rush of it against his cheek as she exhaled. She was breathing.

The thought hit him in a fierce rush that swamped over the anger and anguish and pain. His first whisper was low and almost inaudible: “She’s breathin’.” But then he rose to his feet with her cradled in his arms and a tiny bit of hope unfurled inside of him as he cried out gruffly and raggedly, “She’s breathin’!”

Everything happened in a rush after that, and the memories only came in spurts. The one thing that remained true throughout all of it was that Daryl Dixon stuck by Beth’s side. The Doctor (he couldn’t bring himself to care about his name, let alone remember it) had hesitated only a moment before offering to help, and the cops had parted like a placid sea before the determination on Daryl’s face as he followed after him with Beth in his arms. He didn’t even know what he’d have done if they tried to stop him. If he could have killed them without further harming the innocent girl in his arms, he probably would have, but thankfully it didn’t come to that.

One moment she was held against his chest, and then the next she was laying in hospital bed. He remembered how pale she looked, how stark the blood looked against her skin, how her blond hair splayed across the pillow like a halo. Like she were an angel. He had a flash of a time where he’d looked at her and thought a similar thing. They’d been in the woods, early in the morning the day after leaving that burning shack behind. She’d looked at him all half-asleep with a hazy little smile on her face, and the sun had peeked through the trees just behind her and suddenly her hair was glowing like sunlight itself in a halo around her head. And he’d thought to himself that she looked like an angel, which was pretty damn poetic for him, but fitting for a girl like Beth Greene, all full of hope.

Now he was the one who carried that hope inside of him, burning like a tiny little flame deep in his heart. He held her hand as he stood by the bed, refusing to let it go as the Doctor began to examine her wound. Daryl knew, rationally, that he would probably still lose her. She might be hanging on, but if she’d been shot right through the head, she would probably die. Wouldn’t she? Just thinking about it made his heart clench, made a low sound rise deep in his throat before he forced it down.Daryl didn’t know shit about this, he just knew that he looked down at her and saw her chest rising and falling, and he thought he would do anything in this goddamn fucking piece of shit world if it would help her survive. Cause what was the point of a world like this, without someone like her alive in it?

The Doctor was working on her, talking out loud but it was all gibberish to Daryl at first. He was dimly aware of others in the doorway but he didn’t glance to see who it was. He could hear Rick out in the hallway talking to the cops, and he could hear what he thought was Maggie, out there sobbing. Figured. She showed up at the last damn minute, and she should have been in here praying for her sister’s life, but she was out there probably sobbin’ in Glenn’s arms. Thinking ‘bout Maggie made him furious, but not for himself. For Beth. Cause she deserved better. The thought had Daryl growling low in his throat as he gently squeezed Beth’s hand again. Her palm was as soft as he remembered, but this time her fingers didn’t slide through her own to press their palms together like she had that time in the graveyard, and he found himself lost for a moment in the longing that they would.

Daryl stared down at her in a haze until something finally penetrated.

“Daryl.”

He looked up and saw Carol standing beside him, and his shoulders instinctively straightened at the thought that she was gonna pull him away. He hadn’t even heard her come in. How long had he been just staring down at her? He gave a sudden look down, frantic at the thought that she’d died somehow while he was lost in memory, but it only took a second for him to catch the sight of her chest still rising and falling. So after a moment he looked to Carol and rather than speak, the woman just nodded at the Doctor. Finally he turned to the man, focusing on his face, trying not to dread what he might be about to say.

“She got lucky,” the Doctor started carefully, and Daryl forced his heart not to leap too soon. That weren’t gonna do either of them any good. “Dawn wasn’t aiming when she fired. It’s not quite a graze, but it didn’t penetrate fully. It-” He looked like he was gonna say something more doctor-like, all full of the medical mumbo-jumbo bullshit that just sounded like bullshit to Daryl. But maybe something in his eyes changed the man’s mind, because he faltered and then went on instead, “It just sort of... Sliced across the side of her head. About a half-inch deep. Hit her skull, but not her brain, I don’t think.” He looked like he was gonna say more, but the expression on Daryl’s face seemed to stop him again. He faltered and took a step back before bringing his gloved-hands back up.

Daryl looked down and saw the blood that stained the Doctor’s gloves, and his gaze shifted down to the blood on Beth’s head. Without thinking, he reached his free hand out and brushed his fingers across the scar on her cheek. He wasn’t even aware that his fingers were faintly trembling. “But she ain’t movin’. She ain’t... Awake.”

“No, she isn’t awake.” The Doctor spoke cautiously, both to Carol and Daryl at the same time. “Her body is in shock. She needs oxygen, she needs time to rest. It doesn’t seem like she’s in a coma, but we still need to give her time to wake up. I have to take care of that wound, make sure it didn’t actually hit her brain, clean it and stitch it up. And she’s gonna need time to recover.”

It was a lot of words for Daryl and the state of mind he was in right now. He blinked at the Doctor and he blinked at Carol, and then he looked down at the girl laying on the bed below him. She seemed so pale and fragile, the scars dark across her face and her hand soft and limp in his hand. He felt something thick in the back of his throat, welling up inside of him despite his attempts to push it back.

His voice was gruff when he finally spoke. “She gonna be okay, though?”

The Doctor seemed hesitant, but a look from Carol had him responding, “If we can give her the care she needs, then yes... She should be okay.”

***

It all became a haze again after that. He remembered the Doctor and a nurse hooking her up to the vital machines, putting an oxygen mask over her face. He remembered watching as they cleaned out her wound. They had to shave some of her hair away from the wound and he’d gotten all tense as he watched those fragile strands of blonde silk fall to the floor. It had almost been easier to keep his eyes on them, though, rather than all the blood that stained her pale face before they wiped it away. She was so fucking pale that it made something inside of him clench every time he looked at her, cause it was... Wrong. Beth Greene wasn’t pale and fragile. She was sunny blond hair and big blue eyes and cheeks all flushed pink with that emotion she never seemed to even try to hold inside of her. Beth Greene wasn’t supposed to look like this. It was wrong.

At one point he remembered Rick coming in, trying to convince him to leave her side. Like he would ever fucking leave her side again. He’d left her side once before, and look at what had happened? He remembered growling as he’d shoved Rick away with his free hand, unaware of how much anguish and anger was in his eyes, but he didn’t remember Rick leaving because he’d been too busy looking back down at Beth, following the rise and fall of her chest with his tired eyes. He remembered hearing Maggie in the doorway, crying, until he’d looked up at her and just glared. A Daryl Dixon glare for sure, but so much more than that. Cold and angry and judgmental but also raw with pain for the girl whose hand he never let go of. Maggie looked like she wanted to say something but couldn’t, or didn’t dare, and when she let Glenn lead her away Daryl just let his gaze go back to Beth again, hoping with more strength than he ever thought he could be capable of that she’d just open her eyes and look at him.

The memory that he knew would linger most came when they were all alone in the room later. It had been almost six hours, not that he was aware of that. He was sat in the same chair next to her bed, his rough hand still cupped around hers. He looked down at her as she lay there, her chest rising and falling with her slow breaths. The white bandage across her wound should have been more stark against her face, but she was so pale that it almost blended in against her skin. He studied her face the way he had so many times before when she wasn’t watching him, when he tried to figure out what it was about this girl that made him feel the way he felt around her. Her soft, full lips that were so quick to curve into a smile, the dark scars that marred cheeks that were usually a soft blush pink instead of this pale white, the fringe of her lashes brushing her skin as her eyes stayed closed instead of fluttering open at him. Even like this he could imagine them opening the way they used to, like big blue doe eyes that somehow saw into him, into places no one else could see.

“C’mon Beth,” he murmured roughly, barely aware he was speaking out loud until he had already begun, letting out thoughts that had been building deep inside of him for all the weeks they’d been apart. “C’mon, girl. I know you're stronger than this. Y’ain’t another dead girl, remember? I never thought y’ were, all this time. Never stopped lookin’ for y’, cause I knew. you're strong. you're a fighter.” He leaned in closer, his breath ghosting over her ear and cheek as she said for her ears only, “Y’ changed my mind, an’ I ain’t changed it back yet, Greene. Still believe there’s good in the world an’ you're it. So come on... I know y’ can do it. Ain’t nobody I know as strong as y’ are.”

His voice trailed off, cracking on the last word before he dragged in a slow, rough breath and felt his heart clench... And then he felt something else. The delicate touch of fingers curling around his, a soft and gentle squeeze. Barely, but it was there. She had squeezed his hand. She had heard him.

He looked down and though her eyes stayed closed, he would have sworn there was the faintest of smiles on her face.

Beth Fucking Greene. The strongest girl he knew.

***

He knew it was selfish, but he was glad that when she woke up for real, he was the only one in the room with her. It’s not that he thought it’s his right, even if he’d been the only one in here the entire time, never once leaving her side. It’s that he just felt so lucky in that moment. He was half asleep but fighting to stay awake, all the more when he felt the curl of fingers around his hand again. Instantly Daryl sat up and looked down at her. He expected to maybe see her stir, or perhaps move a little bit more in her sleep. What he didn’t expect was the sight of her eyes fluttering open to give him a glimpse of that perfect, gorgeous blue. He didn’t expect to be mesmerized by the sight of her lips parting and the sound of her little rattling breath being drawn in. He certainly didn’t expect her to look up at him, those big eyes even wider in her pale face but fixed on him as she whispered softly, “Knew you’d... come for... me.”

And Daryl Dixon definitely didn’t expect to be rendered speechless for a moment by the flood of relief and joy and a hint of that warm feeling that he last felt back at the funeral home staring into those same eyes. He laughed, unexpectedly, and it’s all low and gruff, but it put a soft little smile on his lips. “Knew you’d survive. Knew you’d be fighting your way out to meet me.” He remembered seeing her down the long hallway with her hands on Carol’s wheelchair. Those scars on her cheeks had made him furious, but he had looked at her and felt this same surge of relief, and she had looked back at him so strong and alive and he had been so proud of the brave woman she was.

“Told you I was strong.” Her voice was hoarse and he’d known he should go get the Doctor cause she was so pale and fragile looking, but he couldn’t help being selfish for just a moment more.

“Y’ are,” he whispered back, his eyes so warm as he looked down at hers and his thumb stroking over the back of her hand. “Strongest girl I know.”

She looked up at him all hazily, a faint pleased smile on her lips, and though he could see the ghost of other things haunting those blue eyes, he was happy that she seemed happy, at least for the moment. They both opened their mouths at the same time, their voices tangling in the air:

“Daryl-”
“Beth-”

She laughed, all soft and rough but bubbly too, and he had reached to brush the hair away from her face just instinctively. But just as he was dragging in a breath to put words to the bubbling feelings inside of him, the door to the room opened and someone came inside, and they weren’t alone anymore.

But it was okay. Because she was alive. She was alive and he wasn’t gonna leave her side, so he could be patient. For a little while longer, at least.