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All That Remains

Chapter Text

"Nothing is written."
- Lawrence of Arabia

 

~

It had been an accident.

Or so Beth told herself.

She’d been writing in her diary. Just a short entry, about how they’d managed to spend a night in a house without incident. Such a miraculous occurrence deserved to be recorded. And if, in that recording of events now past there had also been a wish for the future that she’d hoped might come true, well… it was best that she think no more on it.

When she’d finished that entry, she’d attempted another. But penned letters had turned to doodles, which in their turn had turned to full-fledged drawings. She hadn’t intended to start sketching him, not really. But there just isn’t all that much to do when you’re sitting in a drafty kitchen in a funeral home at the end of the world. When all is quiet—well, mostly quiet— and you’re waiting for a dog that might or might not come back.

Since the creature had first appeared at the door, Beth had no way of telling how much time had passed, for she could not even see out the boarded up kitchen window, and Daryl had been strict about letting her so much as approach the front entrance. It was the only way in, after all, and he was already on edge because of her ankle.

And so, when the dog had come sniffing around, jangling the string of cans that still served as the best alarm for walkers, she’d hobbled about as far as the kitchen door. And there, her companion had stopped her. He’d sounded harsh, almost menacing, like the Daryl of old, gruffly commanding her to stay back. But Beth knew him better now, and she'd just smiled up at him. And, sure enough, almost instantly the stern mask had melted away—a soft, almost apologetic expression all that remained in its wake. With his hand warm on her shoulder, Daryl had gently turned her away from the front door and helped her limp back to her seat at the table.

And there she sat now, watching him.

With the pen in her hands, Beth looked up from her journal and glanced at Daryl where he stood beneath the kitchen door frame, crossbow in hand, glaring at the entrance hall as though walkers might burst through at any moment. With such an intense expression on his face she thought he could have been standing out there in the forest, waiting for a deer to come into his sights. And so, as she sketched away, it was the likeness of a hunter that took shape there on the lined paper before her. For she could not help but add the ridged trunk of an oak there, just behind his head, its branches hung with Spanish moss. And there, at the other side, a grove of river birch sprouted from the paper as if by magic. A wood thrush warbled in one of the branches over Daryl’s head—she even added little music notes emanating from its open beak.

Beth knew she was rusty at this, and perhaps the end result would look more like something one of the children would’ve made for her back at the prison than an accurate representation of Daryl Dixon in his element, but she didn’t let her lack of practice for the task stop her. From her place at the table she peered over their half-eaten, makeshift brunch, and examined him closely. She observed his clothing, the way his worn leather vest hung from his broad shoulders, the way the sleeves of his faded black denim jacket were frayed and torn at the elbow. Maybe I could mend it for him, she thought. Just gotta find some needle and thread…

Leaning over the table to get a better view, Beth tried to capture the expression in his eyes and his tense, concentrated stance, and to depict what she saw as faithfully as possible. For this particular portrait she relied on the sight of the man standing before her, but drew also on her memory.

And oh, such memory. After all, until last night they’d been out there, in the dark and dangerous woods.

Alone. Together.

For a long time.

They were alone now. Well, sort of. There was the dog, after all. Beth couldn’t stop thinking about the creature. She’d asked Daryl to describe it, and when he’d told her of its state—skinny, scruffy, and with only one eye—she’d almost wanted to cry. “Daryl, we gotta get him to come inside. Maybe give him some food,” she’d suggested hopefully. “What if he’s starvin’?” Daryl had only grunted at that, but Beth had felt his hand, warm and gentle and reassuring, upon her shoulder and she’d smiled to herself.

After that, Daryl had been practically lurching himself to his feet at the slightest noise, every clatter of the string of cans in the breeze. He’d motion for her to stay, and then he’d stand up, bow in hand, and hover by the kitchen door.

But still, the dog had not come back.

And now, all was quiet.

Well, almost.

For it was only in the absence of certain sounds that it became apparent just how damn noisy these old plantation style houses could be. And this one was far more kept-up than most places these days. But without constant buzz of electricity, without the gurgling of water pipes and boilers, without the hum of air conditioners and refrigerators—all the white noise that had accompanied so much of life before—every creak, every groan, every slight gust of wind rattling the boarded up shutters seemed amplified a hundredfold. Out there, Beth had grown used to the never-ceasing background noises of the forest. She mused to herself that perhaps, every now and then the beams of the house just liked to remind themselves of the trees they once were.

And so, quiet was perhaps not the most accurate description. Because the house was about as quiet as the dead, Beth considered with a wry smile. Not the dead in those coffins in the other room, nor the dead in the ground outside. The dead that even now walked the woods. The dead that waited, hungrily, for their return.

But either way, a quiet of sorts had fallen over them. For Beth and her companion had not spoken a word to one another for some time, and this lent the not-quite-silence a strange heaviness.

It did not help that Daryl seemed oddly agitated. Not only did he get up to check on the door at every creak and groan, but he kept pacing back and forth, making it harder and harder for her to draw him properly. She wanted to tell him to hold still, but then she’d have to explain that she’d been secretly sketching him, and…

The moments dragged by. Beth was about to shout at the man to sit down, damnit, but then, with a sigh, Daryl turned back from the doorway. She watched as he strode toward the table, expecting him to take his seat opposite her. Only this time he dragged his chair, its legs scraping against the linoleum, to the other side—her side.

For what purpose, Beth did not know. Perhaps Daryl was simply curious about what she was writing. Instinctively, she slammed the pages of her diary shut, flushing slightly, hoping he hadn’t seen what she’d actually been doing.

Or perhaps, he had simply felt the same strange yet undeniable pull to be close that had gripped her today, since the very instant she’d woken to find him already arranging breakfast and almost flown down the flight of stairs into his waiting arms. From the moment he’d set her down in her seat across from him, she had to admit—a part of her had been waiting for him to move closer again.

When he’d gathered her into his arms and carried her through that door, it had been both like and unlike their game out there in the woods. For capture her he had—and yet, unlike in the forest, Beth hadn’t struggled at all. She'd only clung tightly to him, and hoped he'd never have to put her down.

But now, with him sitting right beside her, his leg occasionally brushing against hers, the sudden lack of space between them was almost overwhelming. As he’d slid into the chair he’d so purposefully dragged beside her, she’d felt his fingers brush against her back, and she’d shivered.

It was not that it was unusual for them to sit beside one another. Nor was it unusual for his hands to find their way to her shoulder, back, or arm. Such closeness, such gestures had become as natural as breathing between them. And yet, after last night…what had once seemed normal and easy now seemed brimful of some deeper, hidden meaning.

Precisely what meaning, Beth did not know.

All the same, as the afternoon inched its way onward, she found herself growing increasingly anxious, increasingly excited, and increasingly nervous about tonight. For last night, up there in that attic bedroom, what had passed between them had been something…new. She was still not sure how far it might go, and she tried not to think about it. But her usually calm stomach fluttered now at his every touch, and there had been many that day.

And the day was not yet halfway done.

They had never spoken about what passed between them at night, and Beth had preferred it that way. She tried to tell herself this was the same, but she could not convince herself. Out in the woods, it was different. A touch was a wordless reassurance when you needed to be careful and quiet, lest a lurking walker find you, hidden beneath the dark pines. Daryl's hand on her shoulder, his breath at her back—all were silent, staunch support during their tracking sessions and crossbow lessons. Clasped hands could be a lifeline, while running from the dead in the darkness. An embrace at night was warmth and shelter and protection from the cold ground, from the chill autumn wind. But here in this house, such closeness was not a matter of life and death. Such touches were not strictly…necessary.

And yet, if anything, since last night, those touches seemed to have increased in frequency. And, Beth realized, all had been Daryl’s doing, as though her very being were a lodestone and his hands and her fingers the points of a compass. Inside this house, in the light of day, all such closeness seemed heightened somehow. Words unspoken, thoughts that she had never allowed herself to think before, now rose to the surface, brought forth by each graze of his callused finger upon her.

“Hey, Greene,” he rasped suddenly, causing her heart to thump faster. “I was thinkin’…”

If Daryl’s soft, undemanding touches had caused Beth to shiver, his voice, so sudden, so close to her ear, nearly made her fall out of her chair. As it was, her hand trembled. Just slightly, but it was enough. She lost her grip on the pen and watched, helpless, as it rolled away across the table and fell, finally, to the floor.

“Dang it,” she muttered. Before Daryl could finish his half-uttered thought, she stood up, pulled out her chair, and slid herself under the table.

In the space of a heartbeat, he had done the same. He now crouched across from her on the floor beneath the table, looking ridiculously too large to possibly fit into such a small space.

Beth could've laughed out loud at the sight of him. In that moment, she flashed to a distant time and place, in a world she’d thought long forgotten. She’d been a little girl at Sunday school, coloring pictures of Bible scenes, when she’d spilled the bucket of crayons everywhere. For some reason, to her child-mind this had been a supreme embarrassment, and so she’d crawled underneath the table and refused to come out. Eventually, another kid had joined her, thinking it was a game, much to the dismay of the teacher.

Here and now, under this table, she let herself feel like that little-girl Beth again, just for a moment, let herself pretend she and Daryl were just two kids playing fort under a table at Sunday school. That, if they just stayed under there forever, they’d be safe in their own world—they’d never have to run again.

There, on their knees upon the cold, hard linoleum, they fumbled together for a little while in the shadows beneath the low kitchen table. Beth heard Daryl mumble something like “'the hell did it go?” while she patted the dusty floor around herself distractedly, only halfheartedly searching. For her companion’s hand once more drifted to hers, his rough fingers brushing against her knuckles. Heart thumping wildly, Beth went completely still before him, all illusions of innocent childhood play now fled.

No matter how many times she’d thought him akin to a lost child, in that moment Daryl Dixon was all man. In that enclosed space, so awkward and cramped, the maleness of him was almost overpowering. For a second Beth felt unbearably young and small, and maybe she was. But if her companion was all man, then she was very much a woman, for last night they had slept wrapped in each other’s arms, in an entirely different fortress of their own making.

That man was looking at her now, his face close, so close to her own. So close, in fact, she could almost taste the grape jelly on his breath, and could easily discern each individual hair of stubble upon his chin, each strand of hard-earned gray amidst the brown.

For a moment, she could not even remember how they had found themselves thus, on their knees, crawling toward each other like prowling beasts. Oh. Yeah. The pen. It was nowhere to be seen. Must’ve rolled under the fridge. Either way, it was out of sight. And out of mind, Beth thought, as she looked into the slanting, feral eyes of the man before her—it seemed that for him, too, the original reason for his presence down there was already long-forgotten.

And as those eyes, bright-blue and full of something, met hers, Beth wondered, with a flush, if perhaps they had found something else under the table.

Suddenly, the space grew too small, too enclosed, too confining. A trap. Beth swallowed down rising panic. No, of course it wasn’t a trap, but the memory of metal jaws clamping around her ankle was still too fresh. Daryl moved slightly, just a hairsbreadth toward her. Heart thumping with a prey-like fear, she jerked upward and backward with all the instinct of creature of flight, and slammed her head against the table’s hard, wooden underside.

There was a ringing in her ears, and she might’ve seen stars. “Oof,” she grunted.

Daryl reacted immediately, but as he scrambled to get up and come to her aid, he hit his own head in the process. “Shit,” he swore.

“You alright?” they asked each other simultaneously from either side of the table.

Was it her imagination or were his cheeks burning? She wondered, if she could see her own face right now, if it would be a mirror of his own.

Beth scooted herself out from that confining space, holding her head where she’d hit it. She tried to stand, awkwardly, dizzily. She held onto the table’s edge as she felt the floor move beneath her, for a moment.

Extricating himself from the table, Daryl strode quickly around it and came up behind her. She felt him reach out and gently take her by the elbow to steady her. “Sure you’re alright?” he asked, close to her ear.

“Yeah, just banged my head pretty hard. Seems like I just…keep gettin’ myself hurt.” She paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and then swiveled to face him.

If she’d thought Daryl’s presence under the table overwhelming, he now seemed to loom over her, trapped as she was between him and the table's hard edge. Beth swallowed and looked up into his face. “You?” she said, suddenly a bit breathless.

“Huh?” He sounded distracted. “Oh. Yeah. ‘m alright.” He was looking down on her now with an oddly fervent expression. “Could never live with myself…” he muttered darkly.

As his strange words washed over her, Beth felt a sudden burst of butterflies in her stomach. “Honestly, Mr. Dixon,” she said, forcing a smile. “I’m fine.”

She reached over, picked up her journal from the table, and slid it into her back jeans pocket. And then she made to move away, edging slightly toward the door.

“Where you goin’?” Daryl reached out then, but instead of grabbing hold of her wrist tightly to stop her as he had so many times past, he took her hand gently in his.

And held it.

Beth stared down at his hand, stared at the sight of it engulfing her own. “Um, upstairs? Think I saw some pens up there…”

Somehow, Daryl both pulled her closer to him and moved toward her at the same time. “Sit down, Greene,” he said again. “You’re swayin' on your feet. What’s so goddamn important you gotta get it right now, anyway?”

She did not answer; he did not let go of her hand.

They stood there for some time, facing each other. Daryl still had her hand entrapped in his, and was still slowly, gently massaging it between warm palm and callused thumb. Beth could only gaze up at him and sway, ever so slightly, in her boots.

At this rate, she would need help getting up those damn stairs…

Finally, Daryl spoke. “C’mon,” he said quietly. “Sit down. I’ll get it for ya. I’ll be real quick.”

“It’s okay.” She looked him straight in the eye. “Seriously. I can do it. ‘Sides,” she added, with a sheepish smile and a little limping dance, “I really gotta pee.”

But still Daryl did not let go. He moved now toward the door, like he was going to help her. Like he’s gonna carry me…

He bent his knees slightly, like he did when he was going to scoop her up in his arms. “No,” she put out her free hand to stop him. “I’ll be all right. Need to see if…if I’m ever gonna be able to… if I’m gonna run out there again, I need to…”

“Beth, don’t—“ he started to protest.

She shook her head, insistent. “Just…stay here, okay? You can, you know, see if he comes ‘round again. The dog, I mean. Try givin’ him some of those pigs’ feet. Bet he’s real hungry.” Something in Daryl’s eyes flickered at her words, just for a moment, making her catch her breath. “I’ll be right back, I swear,” she added gently, with a little smile.

And with that, she wrenched her fingers from his all-too warm and inviting grasp, and limped away out the kitchen door.

At the foot of the stairs Beth found their backpack where she’d dropped earlier, when Daryl had picked her up to bring her, grinning and giggling, through the kitchen door. She stooped now, picked it up, and slung it over her shoulder.

Even as she began her careful climb up the stairs, even as she gripped the cool wooden railing, Beth could still feel the burn of his touch, searing into her skin.

As she took each step one by one, slow as an old lady, far too slow for her liking, she tried to ignore the stab of guilt. Tried not to think about how, when she’d told him to stay and watch for the dog, it was he who’d resembled a lost puppy. Don’t be ridiculous, Greene. You’re just goin’ up the stairs. The man can take care of himself.

But all she could feel was the warmth still lingering from his touch. All she could see before her eyes was his strangely bereft expression as she’d left him standing there in the kitchen, all alone.

~

In the upstairs bathroom, Beth stood in front of the sink mirror, watching herself brush her teeth.

It had taken an age to climb the stairs, but once she was up there she’d finished her business quickly. You don’t spend months in the woods with swarms of mosquitoes, hordes of walkers, and just one gruff male companion, and not learn to be lightning-fast about such things.

While she’d not yet found a pen, in one of the drawers beneath the sink she’d discovered something perhaps far more exciting—an unopened, brand-new toothbrush, along with a half-used tube of Ultra White Sparkle toothpaste.

There was of course no running water in the place, but it didn’t matter—she’d easily make do in order to have clean teeth, not to mention fresh breath. Especially after those pigs' feet…ugh.  Daryl had been generous to offer her one. Sweet, even. And so, she could hardly’ve refused. But combined with the diet soda and the peanut butter and jelly, well…she hadn’t been able to shake the absolutely disgusting aftertaste.

As she swilled the minty paste around in her mouth, Beth couldn’t help but glance at herself now and then, at her own eyes peering back out at her, owl-like, from behind the glass. Leaning over the sink, she looked more closely, but observed nothing in her face to hint at what had transpired downstairs. She examined her head where she’d hit it, and there was not even much of a lump. Nor did she see any sign of a blush upon her cheeks. Sighing, she thought that if anything, she just looked a bit wan, a bit tired.

Once, Beth might have agonized over the details of her appearance; once, she might have tried to brush and brush her hair into a smooth braid or ponytail, but no longer. Now, she barely noticed the wisps of wind-blown white gold, the permanent fuzzy halo that surrounded her face—she’d given up trying to tame it long ago. No, at this rate, she was just glad she still had hair to speak of, that she hadn’t had to do something drastic like hack it all off with Daryl’s sharp hunting knife, or shave her head due to lice.

And so, once she was finished, she bared her freshly-cleaned teeth at herself and then turned away from the wide-eyed Beth-creature in the mirror, and thought no more about it.

She was about to leave the bathroom and resume her quest for a pen when she noticed something she’d missed in their initial sweep of the place the previous day: a small stack of books, atop which rested an illustrated children’s Bible. Suddenly, Beth recalled the store of baby food down in the cupboard. At first she’d just assumed someone had found the jars on a run and kept them, thinking they would make as good a meal as anything at the end of the world. But now…she couldn’t help but wonder. Did the person who lived in this strange place have a child? Or—and her heart constricted with an all-too familiar pain at the thought—did they have one once, but no more?

Beth swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly extremely dry. Too much toothpaste, not enough water, she told herself.

With a growing lump in her throat, Beth shouldered the pack again and moved on, limping up the second flight of stairs to the attic bedroom.

Inside, she quickly scanned all the surfaces first, noticing some of the half-burned candles from last night. Then she moved to check the bedside table, and…aha. There in the top drawer she had found the jackpot—a whole stash of pens and stationary, more than she’d seen in ages. For a moment, she was tempted to take the whole lot, and stuff them into the backpack, but then she checked herself, recalling that the person who tended this place might yet return. So, she just picked out one pen, a hefty one that felt nice in her hand, and put the rest back.

Still standing in front of the nightstand, she set the pack down and pulled her diary from her back pocket. She opened it to the page where she’d left off, intending to resume her entry. Only there, staring back at her, were the hand-drawn, craggy features of Daryl Dixon. “Oh,” she breathed aloud, remembering her surreptitious attempt to sketch her companion. The rough drawing was still incomplete, and she thought she could hardly finish it without its subject.

She closed the diary with a sigh. Her ankle had started to throb again, and she glanced over at the bed, contemplating sitting down for a minute. The throw blanket that had covered them both last night still lay rumpled atop the covers. With sudden force Beth recalled it—the feeling of being held in strong arms, close to a broad chest and an equally strong, beating heart. And now she could feel it, the flush returning to her face. And yet, still the strange lump in her throat remained, and she found that she no longer wanted to sit down on that bed, alone.

Fresh air, she decided, that’s what I need. She hobbled to the other side of the little nightstand and paused in front of the window. The attic window was small, but so was she, and the frame was large enough that, when she leaned over and pushed it open, she could fit nearly her whole upper body through it. Cool air hit her face, blowing the wisps of her hair into her eyes, and gusting right through her clothing, chilling her to bone. But she breathed it in all the same, inhaling it deeply into her lungs, and then breathed it out again with a shuddering sigh.

Beth remained standing in front of the open window for quite some time, just…looking. Seeing. Observing. For she could gaze for quite a distance in a certain direction. And there, beneath the pale afternoon sky, she could make out the sloping roofs of other houses peeking through the treetops, and beyond that…naught but endless forest that stretched out into the horizon.

Closer at hand, from the window’s ledge, she could almost reach out and touch the lower section of shingled rooftop—likely part of the awning over the storage area or laundry room, she guessed. On that roof stood a low, vented steeple and, atop it, a wrought-iron weather vane. Beth could still recall with great clarity a similar piece of sculpted iron back at the farmhouse, with a galloping horse gracing the top. It had always been her favorite, ever since she was a child. This one was a sailboat, and even now it swiveled in the strong breeze. It made her think back to a summer vacation with her family, to a pleasant view of such boats dotting a vast, glossy lake under a hot, beating sun. But then, she recalled a far more recent summer’s eve, and an evening spend on a much different lake. A dark lake glowing like fire beneath the setting sun. And oh, she could still hear the soft beating of pale wings, could still see them gliding to land upon the surface of the water—a pair of swans mated for life.

That was when she noticed it, the spinning arrow of the weather vane. It squeaked as it spun in the breeze. As she watched it whirl past the four directions, it finally came to rest on the letter ‘N’—North. She could not help but notice that it pointed in the direction of the waiting woods. North again, Beth thought. Just like that night at the lake. A chill ran through her that had nothing to do with the wind.

Her eyes darted back to the expanse of forest before her and her thoughts trailed off as she saw them. Like some black cloud they hovered above the branches of the trees behind the funeral home, cackling madly to one another. The crows circled something, some poor dead—or undead— thing. Beth could not see it, but she knew it was there, hidden somewhere deep in the trees. She watched the black birds, dozens of them, circling whatever it was for a long time, until they came to roost in the treetops, still cawing and squabbling amongst themselves.

Beth looked beyond them to the treetops, to the swaying pines and broadleafs that stretched seemingly for miles behind the back of the house. In that moment she knew not what the future might hold, if that dark wood she now gazed upon would prove once more their temporary shelter, or if it held naught but her own impending doom.

She had thought last night that they could make of this room a world entire, but she knew of course deep down that the outside world and all its demons would, sooner or later, come calling. For the world and all its darkness was ever-present, circling them like crows around carrion.

Thoughts she could not shake now materialized in her mind with full force. The person who’d tended this place. The person who may or may not have… Oh God, please, not that. Not another child. Beth sent her words, like a prayer, to the wind, and pondered the pain of a stranger’s loss. She wondered, if she had looked hard enough out there in the graveyard would she have seen, amongst the headstones, a small, freshly-dug grave? The thought made her want to weep and be violently sick at the same time.

Lately, Beth had begun to wonder how much sadness this world could hold, how much loss it could sustain before it really did just…end. How much could be lost before humanity—in all senses of the word—simply ceased to exist? And once it did, she reflected that there would be no one left to record whatever was left in its wake, and no one left to care. Only the undead would remain. And then those unquiet revenants would haunt only each other, lingering for a time, until even they dwindled away.

Or could it be that she had, after all, been right? Was there indeed still some flicker of hope? Or, if not hope, then perhaps, at least, some goodness left? Some, small chance that they—that humanity—could outlast this…whatever it was? Or would they just slowly, slowly fade away? Beth shook her head. She didn’t know. She recalled with a pang what she had decided long ago: that it was better to burn hot and fierce and bright than to fade into nothingness.

Like the arrow of the weather vane spinning out of control, her thoughts now turned in yet another direction she’d tried hard to avoid—to Rick and Carl. To Michonne. To Maggie and Glenn. To all of them, all of those amongst their prison family who’d been so very strong—stronger than she, by far. All of them so capable, all of them who’d survived for so long, but were now seemingly lost. But were they, truly? Out of everyone at the prison, she knew these few at least would’ve stood a chance of escaping the Governor’s wrath. Just ‘cause we didn’t find any signs, doesn’t mean they’re gone. Beth looked once more out across the treetops beyond. Maybe they’re out there. Maybe they’re lookin’ for signs, too. Thinkin’ the same thing about us, wonderin’ if we made it…

“I’m not like you or them, but I made it.”

The memory of her own words, so defiant, so assured, hit her now like a cruel self-taunt. I’m not gonna make it much longer, not like this… For in that moment Beth felt the frailty of her own small body. Her foot would heal, she was sure of it, but only if she were granted the time. And in this world, time was a currency more precious than gold. As it was right now, she knew her chances were still slim at best. Her one and only advantage out there—her speed and fleetness of foot—was at least, for now, gone. If they had to flee this very moment, if they had to run into the dark, waiting woods, she would be painfully, fatally slow. Like Daddy. Since she’d injured her ankle, she’d tried and failed not to think of her father, unable to escape when the Governor had caught him out in the forest beyond the prison…

He hadn’t been able to run, either.

Out of old habit, without shifting her gaze from the open window, Beth touched the tip of her finger to the inside of her wrist. Making her way under the braided beads and charms of her bracelets, she found it easily—the thin, old scar beneath. Her already-racing thoughts now leapt to Daryl—Daryl, carrying her on his back through the graveyard the previous day. Daryl, carrying her up and down the stairs. The memory of his support and strength in her time of injury and weakness brought another lump to her throat. She swallowed hard, but the tightness did not disappear. All these weeks she had prided herself in her ability to match him, to outrun him, even. Was she just a burden to him now? Had she always been a burden, just another load to carry, for those stronger than herself?

It was then that, with sudden and strange clarity, Beth recalled a racehorse that had won the Kentucky Derby a few years before the turn. She remembered it well, being gathered with her whole family and the farmhands around the tv-screen in the living room, watching the young colt flying down the track at Churchhill Downs ahead of all of them, like he’d sprouted wings. He’d been hailed the next Triple Crown winner by all the news outlets and media. Everyone was sure of it. But then, the very next race, right there on the track at Pimlico, he’d broken down. His front leg, shattered in two places. Being so famous, he’d had the best vets, of course. The best possible care.

He’d fought long and hard.

But in the end?

“Some just aren’t built for strength, Bethy,”  her veterinarian father had told her when he’d found her in her room, weeping at the news that the beautiful thoroughbred had finally been put down. “No matter how hard he fought, he was doomed. There was a weakness there, in his lines. In his blood. Deep in his bones. ‘Sides, even if he lived, he’d never run again. Nothing more cruel than that, for an animal like him.”

Now, after so long on the run herself, Beth’s thoughts turned to such creatures, bred for speed but not for strength, and her heart could have bled at the cruelty inherent in such a practice. What good was it, to be born with the instinct to gallop as fast as the wind, but not have been granted the stamina to do so?

What, she thought, was the point?

Doubts long-banished came to her now with all the force of a gust of autumn wind. What use was Beth Greene if she could not run? What use if she could not fight? The handgun could only get her so far; they only had so much ammo. To truly stand a chance against walkers—and anything else that might be out there— she needed both feet firmly on the ground, to balance, to kick out. To keep up with her companion. What use am I, injured and slowin’ us down?

She could feel it, even now, after all this time—the cold shard of broken mirror, its edge sharp against her palm, the wound upon her wrist deeper still. The blood, red-hot and pulsing, flowing, dripping down onto the linoleum. Maggie’s shrieking reprimand. Her own shame and regret, hotter even than the lifeblood running down her arm. She had changed her mind, had wanted to live, the very moment the piece of shattered glass had touched her skin. Since then, she’d not doubted that choice, not even after so many losses, each greater and more difficult than the next. But now…maybe I should’ve just ended it back then, that day on the farm. Something hot and wet spilled down her cheek. I don’t cry anymore, she reminded herself. Too late. It was the first time in a long time she’d let such thoughts—such dark, devouring thoughts—back into her mind.

Beth shook her head, shocked to feel hot tears spilling down her cheeks as she did. Such darkness might reign out there, but it had no right creeping its way back into her thoughts. Not now. Not after everything.

She remained there for a long moment, just looking out the window toward the distant forest. All remained silent, and still.

Still.

Her heart still beat within her, her blood still flowed through her veins. She still breathed. In this world, that alone was something. And on top of it all, she recalled the previous night, downstairs at the piano. How, after everything, she could still play. She could still sing. In that moment, Beth stood a little straighter, raised her tear-stained face a little higher. She was no racehorse, to be put down. Injured she might be, but… I’m still here, she told herself. I’m still strong.

Without even thinking, Beth unsheathed her knife. Not to open her veins, not to let the hot blood surge and spill crimson down across her pale skin, but to slice through the leather cords of the bracelets that encircled her wrist, those woven threads that had hidden her long-ago shame from view. She felt no such shame now, only a surge of fierce defiance. It had been the world’s betrayal and the accompanying sense of hopeless despair that had driven her to such an action in the first place. For the new world, once unveiled before her eyes, had swiftly placed its dark upon mark her, had tried to claim her.

But a scar was no claim. Like words written on a page, like letters engraved onto a headstone, it told only the story of the past.

It told only of what was, and held no power over what might yet be.

Without further hesitation, Beth leaned forward and tossed the handful of bracelets out the window. Tossed them to the breeze. The beads scattered, rolling down the sloping sides of the roof, down to the ground. Some of the leather cords floated away on that north wind, to end up in other abandoned places, their fates as yet unknown.

Lost in the moment, she was about to turn away, was about to close the window and shut out the increasingly-cold gusts of air, when there was a flutter of wings. She looked up, just as a crow landed on the roof just outside. The creature seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, materializing so close to the window ledge that she stifled a shriek and backed away in surprise. The large bird pecked at one of the beaded leather bracelets that had landed on the shingles of the roof. She watched, fascinated, as it picked it up in its beak. It lifted its black eyes to hers, gave a loud squawk, and, flapping its ragged feathers, flew off into the treetops beneath the lowering afternoon sky.

Heart in her throat, Beth watched as those dark wings disappeared behind the distant tree-line. She wondered if she should take this strange occurrence, this almost…uncanny behavior as some kind of sign. For it had to mean something, as sure as there were walkers waiting in those woods. But what, she did not yet know.

She could not yet distinguish doom from destiny.

Tearing her gaze from the window, she quickly wrenched it shut and then limped over to the bed. She seated herself upon its edge with a shuddering sigh. Then, she unbuckled the holster that carried the handgun she'd found the previous day, for it was digging painfully into her side. Carefully, she set it down upon the nightstand. That damn gun, the very weapon she'd injured herself over. Beth wondered if it had been worth it. Despite her surge of defiance in the face of creeping despair, she still could not shake the feeling. The niggling fear that perhaps, after all, she might prove too small, too weak, too…fragile to win this particular fight against the world.

Such thoughts swirled, like autumn leaves on a breeze, before finally settling in the dark, forested corners of her mind. There they remained, waiting to be stirred once more by a cold north wind.

~

Once upon a time, a maiden had danced with death willingly—now, each and every day she and her companion narrowly avoided it, the very extinguishment of their earthly existence.

Sitting alone in the attic on the edge of the bed, Beth wondered if it would ever end, if there would ever come a day, just one day, when they could relax, when they could just…be. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Daryl’s voice echoed in her memory, husky and thick with something she’d once thought was wistfulness for a way of life he’d never known. Something she now recognized, with a fluttering heart, as longing—longing to be able give such a day to her.

With her journal open in her lap, Beth stared at the half-finished portrait of her companion. She had decided, after all, to attempt to complete it from memory before she returned downstairs. For she realized that she carried within her heart a picture of him that was as clear as if he were standing before her.

And yet, as she examined her little sketch more closely, she frowned. She had intended his expression to be serious, that of a hunter lying in wait for his prey. But the more she drew, the more downcast the man’s slanted eyes seemed, the more despondent his figure became. Why had she drawn him standing alone? She considered adding the dog—or at least, her imagined version of it—there on the page beside him.

But before she could even place pen to paper to do so, her eyes began to water. She blinked, and when she looked back down at the page, Daryl’s features seemed to swim before her, as though he were one of the faces down there, below the ripples, beneath the surface of the dark lake.

For a moment, Beth could no longer see the page at all.

All she could see was the face of her companion right before she'd turned away from him downstairs. That flicker of fear that she told herself she’d only imagined when she’d left him there, alone.

“I ain’t afraid of nothin’,” Daryl had once told her. Beth had known it for the lie it was then as she did now. Perhaps, at the time, losing the prison and their family in one, single blow had been his greatest fear come to pass. His worst nightmare, come true. But now, all she had to do was recall the way he’d just clung to her, holding her tightly by the hand like he did not want to let go, like he would not have let go even if walkers were tearing him to pieces, and she knew.

Fear did not easily find its way into the heart of such a man.

And yet, there it was. For over the last few days since she’d hurt her foot, it had become especially clear to her—Daryl was worried about her. Desperately. And up there, alone in that attic room, Beth had come to the realization that she, too, was afraid. Not of dying, no. Everythin’ dies. The turning of the world had brought nothing new with it in that regard.

Rather, she was terrified of leaving him far too soon.

Certainly, over the last weeks and months, she’d clung to the will to live for her own sake. Yet since that night when she’d insisted that Daryl would be the last one standing, Beth had discovered that she could no longer bear the thought. She could not bear the prospect of leaving him here to face this world and its all-consuming darkness, alone.

“I'm just used to it, I guess,” he’d once said. She could still hear the hitch in his voice as he’d offered it to her, by way of explanation, on that moonlit porch so long ago. Perhaps that had been the moment she’d known she had to do somethin’ for him, too. The moment she knew she had to help him see it, had to wrap the beauty that she still saw in the world around them both. The world might indeed be ugly in so many ways, but there was still goodness in what was left of humanity. In themselves…in each other.

And perhaps, in others too. “There’s still good people, Daryl,” she’d insisted to him only yesterday. She had to believe it, even if he didn’t. She had to at least try. It was all that remained.

Beth blinked once more, drew a deep breath, and turned to a fresh page.

And there, the words unfolded before her, and she knew what she had to write.

She didn’t know when, but she knew they would have to leave this place. Sooner or later. They always would. Sooner or later, the dark would close in and catch up, and they’d have to run to keep chasing the light.

And so she began to write in plain, neat letters, with all the manners her momma had taught her: “Dear Sir or Madam, you don’t know us, but we stayed at your house while you were away, and we wanted to thank you for your hospitality…”

The nameless person who’d kept this place secret and safe, who’d held back the darkness for so long, had no idea what a gift they’d given them, these precious days. And last night, especially… well, Beth knew such a gift could not last.

And so, she decided she would make tonight last. For each night could be their last.

The last night with the last man. Beth shivered. The man who hated goodbyes just as much as she.

Out in the forest, she’d once vowed to herself that she’d be the last one standing right alongside him. And later, that night of the hail, wind, and rain—the night they’d hidden from the storm in the cab of that truck and then run from strangers in a strange car. That night, she’d promised him: “I’m not gonna leave you.” But who was she to make such promises, to swear such vows? She knew not what tomorrow might bring.

(They might have to run. She might not make it if they did.)

She knew only that today, she was still here.

And so was he.

Today, they must live.

For, these days, goodbye came all-too soon, and sometimes not at all. It mattered not, when the one you loved—yes, loved—was gone, gone, gone, all the same.

~

There on that bed, Beth felt an almost overwhelming pull to go back downstairs, to return to her companion as soon as possible. But she wanted to finish the note first, so she quickly penned a few more lines to the person who had given them this chance. This chance to rest— and perhaps to live—for one more night. She hoped her words sounded as sincere as she meant them. If a few wet splotches appeared on the pages, if her eyes stung, she tried to hold it back, tried to ignore it, just a little bit longer…

It was then she heard it, the creak of old floorboards. Out of instinct, she reached for her knife and raised her head in alarm. Even as she swiftly realized there was no danger, her heart still thudded as wildly as a hare fleeing before a hound as she heard Daryl’s voice calling to her, “You alright up there, Greene?”

And then he was coming up the stairs, his boots heavy on the boards.

Her heart too full to answer in that moment, she just remained there on the edge of the bed, staring into her diary. A tear spilled down her cheek. Nothin’s alright and everythin’s alright, she felt, deep down and twisty in her gut.

“Beth?” There was a shot of fear in his voice now.

She heard the creak as he climbed the stairs and the heavy clomp of his heels up each step. Roused out of her stupor by the sound of his steady approach—and by the strange clenching in her stomach that accompanied it—she quickly dashed the wet tracks from her cheek.

And then he was there, standing in the doorway.

He’d halted there beneath the door frame, and he stood there at the threshold for a long moment, as though hesitant to enter—as though reluctant to take the final step inside. Beth could not help but take some heart from familiar sight of him standing there with his bow slung over his shoulder. She almost wanted to ask him to stay there, so she could finish drawing him. Almost.

“Found ya, Greene,” he said, sounding strangely breathless, as though he’d just tracked her a hundred miles through the forest. “Dog’s still not back. Guess I scared it away.” He sounded so sad in that moment that her heart constricted painfully. “Sorry,” he added. If he was apologizing for his failure to catch the elusive creature, or his disregard for her earlier command, she couldn’t tell. “Just…thought I might’a heard somethin’. Been up here a while. Thought I’d check on ya…” he trailed off for a moment.

Finally, Daryl set one foot tentatively across the threshold. As he did, his eyes narrowed, and he scrutinized her from the other side of the room. “You okay?” he spoke again, and his voice was so tender, his expression so full of concern as to send her heart into a sudden, frantic beating. It struggled against her rib cage, as though it would rather leave her body entirely and fly across the expanse of the attic room, right into his hands.

As he’d spoken, she’d lifted her face to him and his brow furrowed. Perhaps he glimpsed something in her expression, the evidence of hastily scrubbed tears, because before she could blink, he was across the room, kneeling before her.

He was on one knee before her now, his bow clattering to the floorboards beside the bed. He had, before she'd even realized it, taken her hand, enfolded it in his own.

“I’m okay,” she breathed, though her voice wavered, and she knew she sounded less-than convincing. She looked down at where he’d placed his other hand, warm and reassuring, upon her knee. “I’m okay, I’m okay.”

“No, you ain’t.” Daryl stood up again and moved to sit next to her upon the edge of the bed. The mattress creaked softly beneath his added weight as he settled beside her. He inclined his head, searching her face for some kind of explanation. It was then he noticed the open diary in her lap, and he gestured to the pen resting in the crease of its binding. “Found one, huh? What’re you writin’ in that thing, anyway?”

She took a deep breath. “I was just…leavin’ a ‘thank you’ note.”

He tilted his head. “Why?”

“Just wanted to say thanks,” she shrugged. “For when they come back. Even if…even if they’re not comin’ back, I still want to say thanks.”

His eyes narrowed again. “That what got you all tore up?”

Beth didn’t know how to reply—yes, and no, she thought. So she just sat, looking down at the open pages of the journal, and the unfinished note, and said nothing.

“Mmm,” he grunted, still watching her closely. She felt his familiar gaze flicker over her. “So, been thinkin’…” he began, somewhat hesitant. He gestured down at her half-written note. “Maybe you don’t gotta leave that. We ain’t goin’ nowhere, not yet. Maybe we…” he drew a deep breath. “Maybe we stick around here for a while.”

Her eyes widened at his words. She’d anticipated staying another night, maybe two at most. She hadn’t expected this. “But the person who lives here. You said you didn’t think…?”

“We could…make it work,” Daryl shrugged, a small smile tugging at his lips. “Might be crazy, but…might be alright.”

She couldn’t help but beam up at the man, and in that moment it took all her strength not to just throw her arms around him completely. “So, you do think there are still good people around.”

He looked away now and gave a little shrug, tilting his head, as though dismissing the statement. But of course, she knew him better than that.

From where he sat beside her, he was so damn close she could feel every slight movement of his shoulders, every creak of leather, could feel his jeans slide against her own. She could once more see every hair of stubble on his chin, the little crinkle in the corner of his eye, the quirk of his thin lips. For the first time, she noticed just how damn pretty his eyelashes were, and the observation made her giggle nervously.

Feeling oddly lightheaded, she blurted, “What changed your mind?”

He shrugged again, still not quite meeting her eye. “I’unno.”

Beth was used to this. She’d not relent until she had an answer from him though, not this time. “Don’t ‘I’unno,” she teased gently. “What changed your mind?”

But still her companion did not reply, only lifted his head. And then, and then…his eyes found hers. Eyes that had, at times, held an almost feral intensity before which any other heart would have cowered. Eyes from which Beth Greene had never turned away, not even in the days they’d held naught but sullen despair or even furious rage. Eyes that had, over the last weeks and months, softened with increasing care and, she had come to think, admiration.

Eyes that now conveyed only tenderness and…something else.

In their time out there in the forest, the need for spoken words had long-since fled. Out there, thoughts had passed between them through look, glance, and increasingly frequent touch. And so, though they now sat together within the confines of four walls and a roof, Beth held herself still and opened herself to his mind. She sat patiently beside him, absorbing the heat of his gaze for many long moments. That gaze burned so fervently into hers that she almost wondered if this would be the day she’d finally go blind.

But her sight remained as yet unclouded. Beth blinked once, twice, and then wondered at herself, that she had not seen it sooner.

For there, in the flicker of those twin blue flames, she found it. His meaning, if not his precise words.

You, his eyes blazed. You changed my mind. I could stay here. With you. You're all that I ever—Jesus, Beth, don't you see? Everythin' that’s beautiful and good, so damn good, all that’s left in this godforsaken world...it’s you.

“Oh,” she breathed, so softly she was not even sure she’d spoken aloud. “Oh.”

She had thought it was all just because of her injury that they had stayed even this one night. She had worried she was just holding them—holding him—back. Thought maybe she had, after all, turned out to be nothing but a burden to him. But she saw it now, saw him now, and perhaps saw herself, through his eyes.

And then she thought, surely, she had indeed gone blind. For her vision blurred again, not with bad moonshine, but with a fresh flood of hot tears that now began to fall in earnest.

As those tears slid from her eyes to her cheeks and onto the pages on her lap, her companion sat patient and still beside her. “Beth?” he finally said, his voice scratchy but soft. She felt his arm come tentatively to rest around her shoulders. “What is it? I didn’t mean to—“ he faltered, grasping for the right words. “Shh, hey, don’t…”

Without hesitation, she leaned into him, resting her head against his chest. She wanted to insist that Beth Greene didn’t cry, not anymore. But she recalled how she’d already lost hold of her emotions on more than one occasion out there in the woods, and here and now, well…she found she simply couldn’t stop the flood of saltwater now seeping into his shirt.

There was a moment in time when she thought they might have been holding their breaths, but then, oh—Beth felt strong, familiar arms come circling around her, felt him gather her close to his chest. As he drew her to him, the space between them disappeared. She now sat sideways upon his lap, on his knee, almost as a child, her head still resting upon his shoulder, her face nearly buried into his neck.

And there in his arms, in that firm embrace, in that attic room, the weight of the world seemed to fall away, and with it the guards she had tried to keep upon her own tremulous emotions.

If Beth Greene wept now, it was no longer out of fear of fates unknown, but rather an overwhelming sense of relief. For she was exactly where she wanted to be.

Even so, there in her companion’s arms, she did not sob—indeed, she barely made a sound, but let the tears stream silently down her cheeks. Nestled into his neck as she was, she was surely soaking the collar of his shirt right through, but Daryl did not seem to mind. If anything, the longer she shook against him, the tighter he held her, rocking her ever so slightly in his arms. With one hand he now began to smooth away the wisps of her hair from her cheeks, her mouth, and then he gently pressed her head into him where she rested against his shoulder. His breath gusted warm against her ear and neck as he murmured wordless, soothing sounds into her hair.

He’d done this before, or at least, she recalled him comforting her beneath the dark pines when she'd woken, disoriented and fearful, from her nightmares. But that was out there, under the stars, and this was…

She squeezed her eyes shut, buried her face still further against the hard man who held her so gently. And then she breathed a shuddering sigh, as a child does when finished with weeping.

Finally, the tide that had unleashed itself upon her began to recede. Even so, Daryl still held her close against him and made no move to release her. Neither did Beth stir, but allowed herself to remain in his arms, there upon his lap, just…breathing him in. And, just like the previous night, she caught the familiar forest smells still lingering upon him and upon his garments. She drew comfort from the faint woodsmoke, the worn leather, and his own deeply familiar scent.

With each passing moment, with each quickening breath, she could have sworn the man tightened his hold around her. Perhaps he too had sensed the precariousness of her foothold, the fragility of her very existence. Perhaps he recalled her words that long-ago night at the cabin, when she’d told him, so matter of fact, that she’d be gone someday. Perhaps he sensed that someday might even now be fast-approaching. Or, perhaps, he just desired to comfort her, he who had once thrown this very fragility in her face. “I never cut my wrists for attention.” She recalled it now, her defiance in the face of his anguished wrath. Beth could hardly believe they had once been so estranged, had once held such serpents in their minds, waiting to strike.

She had not backed down from him out there, not once. Perhaps, he wouldn’t have had it any other way. It seemed to her now that he even…admired her for it. More than admired. For the man who held her now in his embrace did so not merely out of admiration, nor even understanding, patience, and care, but…love.

As the realization tumbled from her mind into her heart, she nearly gasped aloud. Beth wondered that Daryl could not hear it loud and clear, could not feel her heart thudding against his chest.

Or perhaps, he simply could no longer distinguish its beating from his own.

He’d wrapped one arm around all the way around her back now, cradling her still ever-closer to him. As though she were something precious, to be protected at all costs. Something he simply could not afford to lose. His fingers came now to rest against the back of her head, just there at the nape of her neck. His other hand remained upon her cheek, stroking and smoothing away the dampness, the last remnants of that strange and sudden sorrow.

Her own hands rested lightly against his chest, and just as his thumb moved to brush against her cheek, her ear, her neck, so did her touch travel upward now, across his broad chest, along the exposed skin along the ridge of his collarbone, up his neck, to the hollow of his throat. She lingered there against his warmth for a time, her pianist fingers light and gentle, and yet firm and confident at the same time.

As Beth continued tracing little circles against his neck, chin, and there, just below his ear, Daryl drew a sharp intake of breath. But unlike previous times, when she’d heard that sound, she did not stop, did not even pause, but continued the slow, delicate movements, enjoying the sensation of the pads of her own small fingers against his warm, rough skin. And, she realized, enjoying his shuddering response, the way he pressed her against him more firmly at each little stroke, each little touch of her fingers, there against those sensitive places. The way his breath faltered a bit, and his lips moved more and more firmly—more and more possessively—against her hair.

They remained there, upon the edge of the bed—upon the edge of forever—for long moments, just stroking and touching and feeling. If the shadows in the room deepened around them, if the faint afternoon light began to fade outside the little window, they paid no heed. They gave no notice to the passage of what, these days, passed as time. Rather, their fingers danced an eternal dance, light and undemanding upon smooth cheek and rough, careworn skin, each caressing the other as though they could somehow, somehow protect the one they touched.

As though the burning traces, left behind upon the places where their all-too human skin lay exposed to the world, might blaze brightly enough to keep the encroaching darkness at bay.

~