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Winter Lilies

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He hasn’t found the courage to go to her.

Not yet.

He’s not sure he ever will.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to. Not that he doesn’t want to talk, to laugh, to be close. It’s just that when he does - when he gets near enough so that he can smell her, touch her, feel her - he finds his mouth dry, his palms sweaty, his words stuck like a bad cough in the back of his throat.

It’s ridiculous when you think about it really. After everything. After losing her and finding her, after moonshine and one-eyed dogs, after past confessions and new ones. It’s ridiculous, he knows this, knows he should man up, knows he should step up to the plate, knows he should do a million other things that empty cliches and emptier platitudes tell him to. And yet… and yet he still doesn’t have the balls to go to her, to finish their conversation, to find out exactly what “Oh” means.

He always was the sweet one.

They’d been on the road for months. No, scratch that, they’d been wandering aimlessly for months. No real destination in mind. One way as good - or bad - as the next. Death lurks around every corner and if it didn’t come from without, it came from within.

If it didn’t come from the dead, it came from the living.

DC was a bust, a huge clusterfuck that only brought death and disappointment. Eugene’s confession, which wasn’t really news to anyone except Abraham, ended in a hail of bullets and the snapping jaws of the dead and rotted. Abraham had lost it out there on the road, turning on Eugene with a savagery none of them had expected but all had known lurked beneath the surface. He’d shot Eugene in the head and thrown himself headlong into a herd, Rosita’s screams piercing the air as he was torn limb from limb. And then Rick and Tyreese had grabbed her and they’d run.

No matter what happens, they always run.

They’d lost more that day. Gabriel, Sasha and a kid named Dennis who’d come with them when they left Grady. So many gone, so many lost.

Maybe Carol is right, he thinks glancing at the haunted face of his dearest friend across the room where she sits wreathed in smoke from the fireplace, maybe they don’t get to save people any more.

Except they had.

Except they did.

Except they will again.

Beth is here. Beth and her braid, Beth and her bracelets, Beth and her scars. Soft on the outside, steel on the inside. He thought he’d saved her. Truth was she saved him.

And herself.

And all of them.

She never gave up. Not once. And the truth was neither did he.

And the day they walked out of Grady Memorial and she’d flung herself into his arms was the day life started again, the day time began moving, the world began turning. He knows it’s a cliche. He knows it’s dumb. But until she’d coiled herself around him so close he felt her heartbeat in his throat, her hands in his hair, it was like the world was suffocating, slowly dying while it waited for him to find her, hold her and allow it to fill its earthy lungs with air again.

He thinks maybe he’s using the earth as a metaphor for himself.

He thinks maybe he hadn’t been breathing before he found her. It’s all a blur really. Dead men don’t breathe, dead men don’t eat or sleep or shit. Dead men don’t walk.

Except when they do.

She never gave up.

And neither did he.

And here they are. So far north, so deep into the snow and the cold that sometimes his mind plays tricks on him and he wonders if they’ve crossed the border and somehow made their way deep into the Canadian wilds without noticing.

Merle had always had a pipe dream about going to Nova Scotia. Daryl had never understood why. A sweaty, sun-worshipping, beer-chugging redneck like Merle freezing his balls off in Canada made no sense. But the fact remained that he had. It was a dream that never became a reality for him, much like everything else in his life. But maybe now he can do it in Merle’s place. Become his proxy for that if for nothing else.

The truth is though, he knows that they ain’t nowhere near Nova Scotia. Ain’t nowhere near Canada, ain’t nowhere near the border. They’re headed to Jersey. No one knows why. He doesn’t think anyone cares. But they needed a goal after DC, they needed something to work towards.

They needed a job to do.

They may as well do something after all.

But fuck if it isn’t cold enough to freeze his balls off anyway.

They’ve stopped now though. At least for a while. The cold might freeze the walkers to the road, might make grotesque ice sculptures out of them, might save you looking over your shoulder every ten seconds (he does it every 25 seconds now, he’s timed it) but trudging through heavy snow with a year-old baby, sleeping in cars or out in the open at night, cold winds blowing out your fires and chilling you to the bone through tattered layers of what were once considered clothes just ain’t something you can keep up for too long. So they’d stopped. Found an old abandoned guesthouse on the outskirts of an old abandoned town in a remote corner of this old abandoned world, and they’d taken the decision to stop, to rest, to breathe.

They’d fortified the outside, dug trenches, chopped wood to form spikes and rigged some rusted barbed wire across the gate and up the drive.

It wasn’t pretty. But then they ain’t looking for pretty any more.

And they’d stayed. And somehow that was even worse than moving on. Not because the place was bad. It wasn’t. Was nice actually, big enough so that they all had their own rooms, with a pantry of canned food and a stocked wine cellar in the basement. They even found clothes that semi fitted and shoes that didn’t fit at all but beggars can’t be choosers.

No, it wasn’t the place.

It was them.

They’d become wild, feral even. Still reeling from their losses and then reeling again from their disappointments. Still in shock about all those they’d lost. Sometimes at night he still says their names like a prayer before he sleeps: Amy, Jackie, Sophia, Dale, Shane, T-Dog, Lori. He always stops before he gets to Merle. Finds he can’t say it. Knows that if he does he’ll have to say Andrea and Hershel too. And he just can’t. He thinks Carol does the same thing, he heard her once as he passed her room on his way to take a piss. But the only names he heard were Sophia, Mika and Lizzie over and over again until he had to leave because he couldn’t take on her pain too.

And that’s why it’s hard. Because they didn’t know how to stop, how to relax, how to be. Their bonds may be bonds of blood, they may be deep and unbreakable only shattering when death comes knocking but at the end of the day they each carry their own burdens, guarding them almost jealously, keeping them like martyrs and hiding them in the darkest corners of their souls.

They don’t share.

It’s too painful to share.

And they needed something. They all knew it. They just didn’t know what.

They’d been in the house a week when Glenn suggested they celebrate Christmas. Glenn the timekeeper, Glenn the historian, Glenn the post-apocalyptic wiseman.

Or wiseass, depending on your point of view.

Maggie said no almost immediately. She always did these days. Daryl doubted she’d even heard the full sentence. There was a hardness to her lately, a resignation that walked a fine line between determination and nihilism. She didn’t want to remember the old world, didn’t want to remember times of basting turkeys and carving pumpkins, times of playing in the park and catching snowflakes on your tongue. That was the old world and hanging onto that was what stopped you being able to survive the new.

This is my life, she’d said, right here right now. It doesn’t get any better, it doesn’t get any worse.

He hadn’t needed to look over at Carol to know she agreed. To know that the darkness infecting them was spreading.

But it was Beth who turned the tide, Beth who came to save Glenn from his inevitable failure. Beth with her big eyes and soft voice and a smile that even the hardest heart couldn’t deny. Beth and all the goodness left in the world.

It’s Beth. It’s always been Beth.

She didn’t debate it, didn’t try and win Maggie round, didn’t even act like saying no was a possibility. Just walked right in there and started delegating. Told everyone they all had jobs to do if this was going to work. That they all had to pitch in, whether that meant hunting, cooking or decorating. She took charge, she organised, she gave them a goal. And they weren’t even grudging when they got to it.

A few days later and here they are, fat and full and over indulged. Happy even, after a fashion. Talking, communicating, laughing even. They’ve eaten well, they’ve drunk too much, they’ve told stupid jokes and sang bad carols, some of them have exchanged gifts. And even though Daryl Dixon has never in his life had a “normal” Christmas he guesses that this is what it feels like.

And he doesn’t want it to end.

Not now.

Not ever.

He glances towards the piano where she sits, fingers barely touching the keys as she surveys them, enjoys the wintry fruits of her labours. This was all her, all of it. The food, the tree, the candles, the wreaths, the cheap booze and the not so cheap they’d found in the cellar.

(No moonshine Mr Dixon, she’d said as she shone her torch on the wine racks and, embarrassed, he’d turned away. Embarrassed because they hadn’t spoken yet, even though he wants to, even though he craves that closure, even though he never wants to speak about that night again.)

He shakes his head. Best let these things go. Best forget it all, the country club, the cabin, the funeral home and the white dog that went with it. It was so very long ago, so very, very long ago that he tells himself the ache in his heart was always there, that it lived inside him since the day he drew his first breath and suckled at his Ma’s breast. Since the first time his old man took a belt to him and Merle looked away and pretended not to see. He tells himself the ache existed long before Beth Greene was born. Tells himself that it had nothing to do with their time alone, the feel of her snuggled against him, her small hand in his. Tells himself it’s not her.

Tell himself a lot of things.

Tells himself a lot of lies.

He realises he’s staring, staring at her as her hair glows golden in the candlelight, as it shines brighter than fire and he realises then that he might have the wings but she’s always had the halo and, like a lovesick schoolboy, his breath catches in his throat and his skin burns. When she catches his eye across the room, he looks away, looks down at his feet, looks at Judy rolling and gurgling on the threadbare carpet on the floor, looks at Carol and sees the knowing in her eyes.

He thinks she always knew. Thinks she saw it in him in those first days they’d reunited. Thinks she just needed a time out from her own demons to see it. She offers a smile, a smile and a nod and it feels like he’s been granted permission he never asked for, permission he never knew he needed.

"Beth, would you sing us something?" that’s Rick standing so near the flames it’s a wonder he hasn’t set his ass on fire. "Would you sing us something nice?"

There’s a moment of silence, a moment when he knows they’re thinking of Hershel, when he knows that they’re back at the prison sitting on the grass, Lori’s belly big with Judith, and Beth is saying that no one wants to hear, that her singing is nothing anyone wants or needs, that singing isn’t part of their lives now.

And, as she turns in the seat and lays her fingers on the keys, she glances at him, so quickly he almost misses it and he knows she’s back in the funeral home, back right there with him, because he’s there too and there’s nowhere else he’d rather be. She thought her singing annoyed him. She thought nobody wanted to hear. She thought she needed to change.

She was wrong. She was so, so very wrong.

When she starts to sing, her voice is clear and sweet, but it’s also mournful. Mournful and haunted.

They’re all haunted now.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on your troubles will be miles away

The song is a lie, they all know it. But it’s a lie they need. And they all listen, even Judy who stops gurgling and chewing on her fists long enough to roll onto her stomach to watch. He wonders about that kid sometimes, wonders how it must have been for her when she was with Carol and Ty. If she cried for Rick, for Carl … for Beth.

She probably did, probably cried a whole helluva lot.

Not nearly as much as him though. Not even close.

Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

She ends like she starts, haunting, sorrowful, but firm, confident, her words wrapping them up and keeping them safe. The final note lingers and when she turns around her eyes are shimmering and Maggie and Glenn move to pull her into an embrace. He knows that this is their grief. The grief of sisters, the grief of family. It’s a private moment and even though they are all here - what’s left of them at least - he feels like an intruder.

But then he sees she’s looking at him over Maggie’s shoulder. Her eyes too bright and cheeks too red and he suddenly thinks that the image of the three of them in front of him is off balance, like a puzzle missing a piece, like there’s a wayward cog needed that’ll get the wheel turning.

And he wants to go to her, move himself into that embrace and even them out, play his part and fulfil his role. But that’s crazy talk. Crazy talk and crazy thoughts and he’s starting to wonder if he had more of cheap wine than he realised.

He didn’t though.

He knows he didn’t.

But she’s still looking at him. Her eyes big and blue and wide and he feels like a dick sitting here and like an idiot if he goes. So he looks away, looks at his shoes, at Judith, at the understanding and realisation in Carol’s eyes.

He sees it all and none of it as he makes for the door and gust of freedom he hopes he’ll find outside. It’s too much and too deep and the ache in his heart is too real and he feels like he’s choking and drowning and like the earth has decided to stop breathing again. And he can’t help it as he barrels out into the night. Away from Christmas, away from his memories, and most of all, away from her.

***

It’s cold outside, really cold and he hates it because, like Merle, he’s a sun-worshipping, beer-chugging redneck and he misses the sweat-soaked shirt sticking to his back and doesn’t understand the scratchy closeness of layers of vests and sweaters.

It’s quiet too, the noise from inside so muffled he can barely hear it. There’s something disconcerting about the silence of this new world. No cars honking, no trains rattling, no people shouting in the streets. No, now they have the groans of the undead, the occasional caw of carrion birds. Death, death, death everywhere. They die and the world dies with them.

He remembers when they first lost Sophia that he’d found one of Dale’s books and tried to distract himself with it. He doesn’t remember the title, but he does remember a quote.

"death is not a lover"
"oh yes he is"
*

He stopped reading then, the book too depressing, the subject matter too close to home. Why read about the apocalypse when you’re in it? When you’re living it? When you don’t need someone else to create images for you because they’re here? Here, brazenly showing off their grotesquerie for the world to see.

But it’s true, night’s like these it seems like death is a lover, a clingy one at that and he wants none of it. None at all. He’s been a walking dead man, been one for too long. He’s over that. Time to move on.

Or not.

It doesn’t matter now.

Or maybe it does.

He’s checking his pockets for cigarettes when the door next to him creaks open and she steps out into cold. She’s not bundled up and he wonders why because she’s so damn skinny and her lips and fingers are always tinged purple and blue.

"Hey," she says moving to his side.

He grunts. He thinks she gets that it’s a greeting.

"Missed you in there," she says, not looking at him.

"I was there," he answers, forgetting about his cigarettes and letting his arms hang limp at his sides.

"And then you weren’t."

She’s right and he has no answer so instead he stares into the distance, at the stretch of snow before them, at the barbed wire, at the once grassy verge beyond the wall and the frozen walkers lying in the street beyond that. He can’t think on Beth now, can’t think on them, even though he does and he must. But his heart is too twisted and his thoughts too fractured and he just wants to stand out here in the snow and breathe and breathe and breathe until things feel normal again. Until the world rights itself.

So he does. Deep breaths. Slow. Easy.

Easy.

Slow.

He realises then that the air smells clean and that’s new. The stench of decay is all but gone and he guesses that’s another of the advantages of the cold. Rotten meat now turned to ice, decay now frozen. It’s like everything is on hold and time has stopped until those spring rains arrive. But by that time, they’ll be long gone.

Gone like everything and everyone else. Gone like the whispers and the screams. Gone like the living and the dead.

When her hand slips into his it’s like they’re back at that grave, Hershel’s grave even if it wasn’t. Even if Hershel has no grave and is just another body for those carrion birds. He squeezes firmly and she responds by leaning against him, letting her weight rest on him and he wonders if he should put an arm around her, pull her a little closer, hold her a little tighter. But he doesn’t. Doesn’t because he wants to recreate that moment, wants to pretend that it’s just them, all alone, all quiet and still and frozen in time in that funeral home that became a twisted garden of Eden.

He realises then that he wants to go back. He’d give anything to go back. Anything for a few more minutes to finish their conversation, to find out what “Oh” means. If it means anything at all.

He wonders if he’d ever have the courage to ask her. He wonders why he hasn’t. He wonders how they have gone from what they were then to who they are now. If they’ve gone too far.

Stay who you are and all, but maybe he wants a little taste of who he was all those millennia ago. The man who carried her into the kitchen, the man who fell asleep to the sound of her voice.

The man that made her say “Oh”.

He decides then it’s what he wants for Christmas, but if he doesn’t get it, then standing here holding her hand is good enough for now.

"I missed you Daryl Dixon," she whispers into the cold and it’s like her words are the night and her voice is the air and it wraps him up more than any sad Christmas tune did. This isn’t a lie, this isn’t a deception, this isn’t denial. This is real and it’s here and it’s her and it’s everything in the world. And he wants it and he wants her and suddenly he feels like he’s bursting inside and he has to tell her before he explodes, before he falls apart, before tomorrow and the fresh horrors the world will bring.

"Beth…" he starts.

"Daryl look," she whispers. "Look."

So he does and he sees it’s started to snow again and somehow he can see by her face that she’s finding something in this. Some beauty, some light, some hope. Even though it’s been snowing for weeks now, even though they’ve done nothing but grumble and moan and bellyache about the cold and the wet, even though this very setup they have going is because they didn’t want to deal with the snow any longer.

And yet, here’s Beth, wide-eyed and smiling as she watches the snow swirling in the wind. Smiling like it’s some kind of fucking miracle, not the same damn thing they’ve seen every goddamned day on the road. And the ache is there, the ache he tells himself has always been there.

Even though he knows that’s not true.

She pulls away from him, fingers slipping out of his own, leaving his thumb in mid rub, leaving a cold emptiness as she walks out into the moonlight.

She spreads her arms wide and lifts her face to the sky and for a second it’s like she has no scars, no wounds, no past. For a second it’s only her and only him and even though there is only a dim light from the fires and candles inside the house, even though the moon isn’t full and the buzz of street lights long since faded and died he sees her in perfect detail. Her eyes, her golden hair, her porcelain skin. He can count her lashes and see the dusting of freckles on her neck, can see the pink of her tongue as she catches a snowflake and the flash of her teeth like a warning behind her smile.

He remembers what it felt like to lose her and what it felt like to find her, remembers nights spent on cold ground with Joe and the gang, remembers the coldness of the boxcar, the fear that lived inside the very ground Terminus was built upon. Remembers finding Rick and watching him pull a man’s throat out with his teeth, remembers how Carl had cried and how Carol had wept and how they’d all reunited outside that cabin in the woods. He remembers how he just wanted to lay down and cry when she wasn’t there.

But they don’t get to do that.

Except now, except maybe they do.

He feels tears prickle in his eyes, feels the world shift under his feet and his vision blurs. He tries to blink his grief - or is it elation? - away. Tries to right himself. But he can’t. He can’t as those names he whispers every night before he sleeps come back to him. There’s no order to them now, no sequence, it’s just all of them. And this time, he can say Merle and he can say Hershel and be grateful that he doesn’t have to say Beth’s name too. That he’ll never have to say it.

He tries to focus on her, see her in the snow, but the world tilts and it’s actually a field of lilies and she’s laughing and dancing. And it’s not cold any more with the hint of a spring in the air. And he sees her spinning and spinning while the sun caresses her skin and she falls to her knees and digs her fingers into the wet soil, mud coating her knees and the pale pink sundress that sits high on her legs.

And in that moment he knows what she is and he knows what he is. And it doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter one bit because he loves her and she loves spring and all their troubles will be out of sight. And he can’t breathe and he can’t move and he can’t speak but it’s ok, because he doesn’t want to. Doesn’t want anything but to watch her in this field of lilies and dreams and know her as the singular joy she is. He wants to say something, wants to tell her about the mud and the lilies and the snow, wants to scream that he loves her as loud and as long as he can, but his tongue is stuck and his mind is reeling and he feels like he’s falling faster and faster through space and time and that he’s going to fragment into tiny pieces, into individual cells, into nothingness if he can’t find something to hold onto, something that’s real.

But he can’t and he thinks he’s about to burst into flame, that this is the end. And then it’s her voice, her voice through the snow and the lilies, through the winter and the mud.

"Daryl?" she says and his eyes snap to her. "Daryl, come out here."

He blinks. He shakes his head. And the world rights itself and he can see again. Can see properly but no less clearly.

She’s still standing with her arms outstretched to the heavens and the snow falls softly in her hair. He can see the faint white band of her belly where her vest has pulled out of her jeans, an expanse of flesh that he wants to kiss and touch and lose himself in.

He realises suddenly that even as she has changed, even as her will has turned to steel, she has become their backbone, their spine. She’s the one that keeps them together, even as they fall apart. It’s like the moonshine cabin all over again but this time it’s not him falling apart on her, not him crumbling at her feet while she puts him back together, it’s all of them. Every last one. This is what this Christmas is about, this is what she’s done, this is how she’s drawn out the threads of what they were and patiently started sewing them back together.

He knows that without her they are nothing, without her they’ll all spiral out of control, flinging their pathetic lives and bodies to the four corners of the globe, going wherever the wind takes them. The thought doesn’t scare him even though it should. He thinks he knew it already. He thinks he always did.

She’s everything, she always has been.

She’s watching every step he takes towards her, watching him keenly and quietly, watching him like she knew it would all come to this, that is was inevitable and undeniable. That it was destined. She falters a little when he falls to his knees before her, but only a little. And the doubt that crosses her face is gone before it was even there.

The tears are back as he places his shaking hands on her waist, his thumbs tracing the pronounced lines of her hip bones, warm and smooth even though she should be freezing. He wants to kiss her, wants to hold her, wants to take her right there in the snow, spread his jacket out like a mattress and use his body like a blanket. Fist his hands in her hair and breathe her breath into his mouth, his lungs.

Instead he leans his forehead against her belly, letting his cool skin rest against her warmth, letting his tears fall onto her, smelling the scent of her through the ice and the snow and the cold. And when he thinks he’s gone too far, when he thinks he’s startled her and pushed this more than it should ever be pushed, he feels her hands in his hair, her fingers against his scalp, nails scratching gently against his skin. And they rock together for minute, an hour, an eternity.

And it feels like home.

And when he eventually finds the courage to lift his head and look up at her, the moonlight frames her face with shadows and all he can see is the halo of her hair. And his breath catches in his throat because she’s not Beth any more. She’s not Hershel’s daughter or Maggie’s sister, she’s not the woman he loves or the woman that loves him back. She’s something else, something else completely. Something ethereal and fantastical. Something that has seen the world and all it’s secrets. Its horror and its beauty.

He tries to choke out of her name but he can’t so he looks down again, trying to get the thickness out of his throat, trying to find the words that he never knew and he feels as weak and vulnerable as a newborn. He wonders insanely if he’ll need to learn to talk and to walk all over again, if he’ll need someone to care for him day in and day out, because all his faculties are gone, erased. He wonders if she’ll need to build him anew.

She did it once before though. Ain’t no reason she can’t again.

And then his lips find their way to her skin, her stomach and he draws on that reserve, that courage, that madness to press his mouth against her, to feel the smoothness under his dry roughness, to breathe her in and breathe himself out. And she’s soft and sweet and perfect. And he knows he could spend his life like this, on his knees, head bowed, drinking her in, drinking in the woman that she is, the woman she was and the woman she will become.

His lips ghost over her again and her skin prickles with gooseflesh as he sticks his tongue out to taste her.

To know her.

And she tastes like snow and sunshine, like lilies and starlight, like earth and ice. She tastes of the old world and the new and he doesn’t want to stop, wants to stay like this forever until the rest of them come looking. Find them out here like ice sculptures, melded to the ground and each other in an embrace that will never end.

But when he hears her say his name, her voice heavy and husky, he goes still and it’s the moment his mind needs to catch up with his body, to understand this picture they’re creating of him and her and them in the snow. Him on his knees, her with her hands in his hair, his mouth lingering a hair’s breadth from her belly.

"Beth, I…" he pulls back, trying to drop his hands from her hips, loosen her grip on his hair and stand all at once. But he can’t, because he barely has the wherewithal to form words and her hands are strong and her body is firm and the truth is he doesn’t really want to move at all.

And then she’s on her knees in the snow too, her face millimetres from his and he can see the snowflakes caught on her lashes, can see the red tip of her nose and the flush of her cheeks. He tries to say something else but he doesn’t know what and it comes out garbled and mangled and stupid and he sees the lilies again and he sees the mud but also the snow and another image of her naked and smooth beneath him and he tries to tell her, tries to explain why she needs to move away and let him go and why they need to go back to the house and why they can’t be out here in the snow and soil and the sex and the cold and the heat and…

"Hush," she whispers, palms on his neck, fingers threading through his hair. "Hush now."

And he wants to hush but he can’t, because he knows what will happen when he does. But he can’t talk either because he’s never had the words and never had the chance and never had the balls to say what he needs to say, so he stutters into the air as his hands flutter against her hips and his heart pounds like a jackhammer in his chest.

But when she kisses him it’s like all feeling leaves him and he becomes boneless and liquid, held up only by the press of her body and the weight of her hands. Her lips are soft and smooth and her tongue is wet and warm and tastes as sweet as that Champagne they found, as sweet as the scent of lilies, as sweet as everything that is Beth Greene.

And he knows he should but he doesn’t have it in him to fight, to think, to leave. So he doesn’t. Doesn’t even try. Just lets his hands dig into her waist, lets his palms slide under her vest and shirt, lets his tongue explore her mouth as her hands grip his hair fiercely and tightly. Lets himself believe in the lilies and the earth and power that is Beth Greene. Let’s his heart fill up with her so that there’s no more room for that ache, for that pain, for that longing.

And when she pulls away, slowly this time, maybe a little shyly, trailing chaste kisses along his cheek and jaw, the scruff of his beard and the sharp prickles of his neck, he allows his knees to sag and lets her see the tears in his eyes.

Death is not a lover

"Beth, I…" he starts again and she puts a finger to his lips, kisses the wetness from his face.

"It’s ok," she tells him. "Me too."

And he doesn’t need to ask her what it means, doesn’t need to pry. Because he knows. Knows she means it and knows he doesn’t have to say it.

But he does anyway.

He pulls her into his arms and whispers into her hair that he missed her, that he needs her, that he wants her and finally that terrible truth, that somehow, in a world gone to shit and stone, he loves her. He loves her more than life and he never wants to let her go.

And her arms tighten and her breath quickens and he swears he smells the lilies again.

He’ll never give up.

And neither will she.

And the ache is gone.

And the puzzle is finished.

And it really is a merry little Christmas.