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Chapter 39 – Fire and the Embers Bright Will Guide You Through the Night

*~*

Welcome to Hunter’s Lodge.

Greg’s final words echoed in Beth’s head as she lingered by the heavy wooden door, fingers resting atop the bolt after sliding it home and securing them inside room number thirteen. The thought of Greg as the unlikely leading man of a television show was still on her mind, and she was just exhausted enough that his welcome felt like the tagline to some post-apocalyptic psychological thriller set in an old hunting lodge—which, she supposed, was more or less true, though hopefully without the thriller part.

At the sound of something scraping across the slate floor behind her, Beth turned from the door to find Daryl easing his weary body into one of two chairs by a small rectangular table in the very centre of the room. Giving her head a shake, Beth fought to clear her mind of the delirious little cloud that had her thinking about obsolete forms of entertainment instead of focusing on what needed doing—before she gave into the insistent tug of exhaustion pulling at her shoulders, urging her to accept its inevitable advances. The rush of adrenaline wasn’t so much fading as falling away in ragged chunks, one deep breath at a time. A bone-deep sort of ache seeped in behind it, a soft tremor that whispered instead of shook, drawing her eyes past Daryl’s hunched form to the bed in the far right corner, one edge of its rich blue-and-red checked quilt turned down in invitation.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep

Beth dragged her eyes away from the bed. What she wanted to do was just drop everything and fall down onto it face first and not climb out again for a week. But that wasn’t possible, not yet. Daryl leaned quietly over the table, his chest rising in a deep, steady rhythm, the damp ends of his hair glowing orange from the fire blazing away in the hearth in front of him, to the right of where she stood. A smaller version of the big brick one in the common room but still much grander than something she would expect to find in what was essentially a large bedroom.  Beth set her pack down by the door and moved to explore the space, take stock of their surroundings. Her boots tapped against the stone floor as she stepped between the table and the fire, the blaze established and already heating the room to a cozy level of warm, even with its vaulted ceiling and bare stone floor.

In the other corner were two doors, a heavy wooden one at the foot of the bed which opened to a high-walled courtyard, and an open archway on the other wall leading into a bathroom. There was no sink in there, but the wooden countertop which took up the rest of the wall space, from the archway, around the corner, and back to the door they came in had a wide, deep one set into it. The cabinets beneath the counter had various drawers and doors, but the supplies Greg promised—a sizeable first-aid kit, stacks of towels and facecloths and even two separate piles of clean clothing—waited beside the sink, and a little more toward the corner sat a stoneware pot, several covered dishes, and a pitcher of water. Beth’s stomach twisted, rumbling with hunger she hadn’t felt until now. Hours since she had eaten, and longer than that for Daryl. Once she got him patched up and warm, then they could eat.

She turned slowly, eyes drawn again to the bed in the far corner, the lines of that poem rolling once more through her head. Then they could sleep.

The room had no windows, but a couple of skylights opened in the ceiling, one above the bed and one above the sink. Though it was the middle of the night, the fire in the hearth and the candles flickering from sconces set at regular intervals on the cream-coloured walls gave off plenty of light to work with. After setting her crossbow down by the door, Beth took hold of one of the oil-burning lanterns like the one Greg carried—this one placed next to the food—and joined Daryl at the table, where he was still leaning over the top of it, head hanging down almost into the cradle of his arms. His fingers tangled in a knot in the middle, knuckles white, as though the only way he could keep them from shaking was to hang on tight.

Beth placed the lantern on the table and pressed her palm between his jutting shoulder blades, hating the way his clothing stuck to him, soaked all the way out through his denim jacket with sweat, the body beneath it lacking his usual heat. “Room’s good. Lemme see what’s here so I can get you patched up, okay?”

Daryl hummed at her from beneath his cascading hair, a little rumble she felt through his back more than she heard. He offered no other response, but it was enough to know he heard her, that he hadn’t slipped away somewhere else in the time it took her to search the room. She left him to return to the sink and the supplies waiting there, including a washbowl, though the only water she saw was in the pitcher over there with the food.

She couldn’t clean him up without water, so there must be something else here, something she wasn’t seeing, and she had the cupboard doors beneath the basin pulled open before it occurred to her to try the tap. The prison hadn’t been so long ago when she thought about it in days, and yet each of those stretched out behind her now like months. Years, of just her and Daryl on their own without even the most basic of modern conveniences, indoor plumbing amongst them. Not even the cabin had that, just a washtub and a big metal pail and a nearby creek in which to fill them. But when she turned the tap the water flowed clear, somewhat lacking in pressure but it brought a grin to her face despite her swollen, throbbing cheek. She dipped her dirty fingers into the stream and promptly yanked them back out again.

Running water was one thing. Warm running water was something else entirely.

She’d turned the tap to hot, the habit still ingrained in her muscle memory, but not out of any conscious expectation of warm water. Still, when she tested it again, the temperature hadn’t changed and the little stream poured delightfully warm over her fingers. Completely unwilling to question how this was possible, but grateful for not having to try heating some on the fire, Beth washed her hands with the bar of gritty soap she found in an off-white ceramic dish shaped like a goose, then set the washbowl to fill and turned her attention back to the pitcher of drinking water. It had squashed blueberries and slices of orange—actual, real orange, bright and round and perfect—and something leafy and green floating happily in the bottom of it, and both looked and smelled like a summer picnic as she poured out two glasses and took one over to Daryl.

“Here, you should drink some more water.” The glass made a little thunk when she set it down in front of his knotted fingers, but if he heard it he didn’t react. Beth nibbled at her lip but tried not to let her worries get the better of her. “Maybe try to get your jacket off, if you can? I—I’m gonna have to stitch that wound.”

Another hum in response. Just a low rumble that might have meant anything, but it was likely all she was gonna get out of him right now. So she left him to his water and downed her own glass in one go, too fast to taste but it was cool heaven on her parched throat. The flavour lingered on her tongue afterward, a mix of sweet and tart from the fruit with a hint of fresh basil, as she checked the progress of the washbowl and set about organizing the supplies she needed.

Daryl hadn’t touched his glass. Hadn’t even moved at all by the looks of it, so Beth shifted around to the other side of the table to face him and gave his wrist a little squeeze when he didn’t react to her standing there.

“Daryl? Hey, you still with me?”

A puff of air flitted out, and after a moment he finally looked up, peering at her from beneath the sweat and blood soaked strands of hair lying down over his forehead. He said nothing, just watched her watching him, shadowed gaze intense in a way Beth couldn’t quite read, but it made her belly squirm all over again and not in a particularly good way. A long minute passed before he dropped his head back down, and that feeling in her stomach lingered.

“Daryl.” Despite the squirm, Beth reached out to brush the hair away from his forehead, and leaned toward him across the table. “Say somethin’ so I know you can hear me.”

Daryl grunted at her, then lifted his head and let out a sigh. “M’fine, Beth.”

Beth breathed out a sigh of her own. “You are not.”

He gave no answer, just lowered his head again like the stubborn ass only Daryl could be, forehead bumping the table this time with a little thud and a subsequent soft whimper. Beth knew he was in pain and must be fighting the urge just to screw it all and pass out right there at the table. Maybe he was even planning on doing that, lord knows why, but she wasn’t just gonna stand there and watch it happen.

She tightened her hold on his wrist, curling the tips of her fingers into the beat of his thready pulse. “Daryl, c’mon. You need stitches and you gotta get warmed up.”

A heavy breath was his only response, shaking through his chest and brought with it a half-swallowed moan.

Another sigh, this one dredging up a weary sort of ache from the bases of her lungs. “Daryl.”

He jerked his wrist out of her hold, pulled his arm down beneath the table. “You don’t—”

His voice cracked, just a little, just enough to add another twist to her already squirming stomach. When he spoke again the words came out thicker, raspier, tinged with something that brought a lump to her throat.

“You done enough.”

The squirming sunk down deeper, heavier, both blazing hot and icy cold all at the same time, and the ache in her head she had been fighting to ignore pounded now like angry fists behind her eyes. Beth reached out again to sweep the hair from Daryl’s face, trying to understand, to read what was going on inside his head so she could navigate them through it. “Daryl, please talk to me.”

He moved in slow motion as he looked up at her, his left eye nearly swollen shut, but the other one was clear. Clear and hard and blazing at her, bloodshot and glistening, but it wasn’t pain shining there. Her heart stumbled out of its place and joined the weight in her belly, her vision starting to blur with moisture. She opened her mouth to speak but the words caught in her throat, refused passage by the growing lump she couldn’t swallow down, as Daryl once again laid his head on the table.

Of course. Of course he’d hear her story and look at her beat up face and start imagining all the ways it could’ve gone worse or her. From there it was easy for that dark, spiny thing lurking in the hidden corners of his mind to come up with the millions of reasons why all of this was his fault. As though he had kidnapped himself and dealt her each and every blow with his own hands. Might as well have, right? Because getting out alive meant nothing if she got hurt doing so, no matter that he knew she would come. No matter that he knew she was little but tough and could handle herself.

Beth clenched her jaw so tight it hurt. “Daryl, you look at me right now.”

He didn’t. Of course he didn’t, and she could almost hear it, looping in his head. Like that day at the cabin the very first time she tried to tell him. I ain’t good, Beth. He wasn’t good because he should have done something. Something more. Something better. Something to stop it from happening at all and if that didn’t work, he should have found a way to get free and slip past thirty armed men in broad daylight. Should have tapped into some superpower he was supposed to have and vaporised the threat before it came anywhere near her.

Well, bullshit. That was absolute bullshit, because Daryl Dixon was a good man, one of the best she knew. Maybe the last one left—the last man standing—and his shoulders might be broader than most but even he couldn’t bear the whole world upon them no matter how hard he tried. If she could she would crawl up inside his head, just like he wanted to after her flashback. Yank that filthy darkness right out through his ears and toss it into the fire, burn his demons alongside hers and warm their hands together after in front of the flames.

She couldn’t do that but she could get closer, could lean across the table and she did, reaching out to cup his unmarked cheek in her small palm. Pressed in tight to his cool skin as her words rasped out in a sharp-edged whisper. “You’re worth more to me than worryin’ over a couple of bruises, Daryl Dixon, so quit it.”

Faster than his body probably wanted, Daryl snapped his head up, lips twisting into a pained grimace which faded away as Beth stroked his cheek with her thumb. Slow passes to undamaged skin until that hooded gaze finally cleared and focused on her face.

“I made my own choices,” she whispered, letting the wobble break through in her voice now that she knew he was listening, “and you don’t get to feel guilty.”

Daryl swallowed, or he tried to. Tried to work his mouth around the thoughts waiting on his tongue but they stuck there, as they so often did. Someday he’d realize that he could say the things in his head if he just gave them time to ease out on their own. That he didn’t have to fight it all the time, worrying that she’d give up on him or something if he didn’t get the words out right now. They were in this together and they always would be and anyone or anything that tried to change that, even his own silly head, was fighting a losing battle.

Without stopping the motions of her thumb, Beth lifted her other hand to trace her fingers along his jaw, up around his forehead until his brow smoothed and the tension finally let go. “You knew I was gonna come for you. You knew I wouldn’t just let—let—”

Something hitched beneath her sternum, stealing the rest of her words, rising up to swell that lump in her throat so big that it nearly hurt to breathe. But she forced a breath in, pulled the air deep into her lungs, pushed through the pounding in her head and the tremble in her voice to finish saying the words beating in her heart. “I couldn’t just let them take you away from me. I—I don’t wanna do this without you.”

This time he did swallow, hard and audible, eyes squeezing shut as though he was trying to prevent the gathered tears there from falling. They fell anyway, sliding unchecked down his cheeks as a little shiver skittered across his shoulders. “Beth.”

Beth skirted her fingertips past his wounds, wispy, barely-there touches, and carefully cupped his cheek so that she held his beautiful, battered face in both her hands. “I only did what you woulda done if it were me.”

He tipped his head, pressing into her palms with a quiet hum of affirmation, drawn out into just the right sort of soft moan to lighten the weight in her stomach.

Taking care not to hurt him, Beth traced her thumb along the angriest of the purple marks on his cheek. “Remember when you told me I just gotta know how to read the signs?”

Daryl shuddered, softly, fingers curling against the table. “Mmhm.”

“I read them, Daryl,” she said, shuddering, too, remembering back to that very day, the memory both fresh as it ought to be and yet stretched out behind her as though years had passed. “I read them and I knew what to do and that’s because of you. That’s what you did.”

Daryl opened his eyes, the left one barely moving but the right one grew wide, the blue of it turned to dancing orange from the flames all around them. “Beth. Beth.”

“Daryl, you saved me, too.” She choked back a sob, a great heaving thing that stuck there in her throat when she tried to swallow it down. “We saved each other and that’s how it’s gotta be.”

Beth and Daryl against the world. Unspoken but there, the backbone of that tether stretching taut between them. So much more than just some silly saying. It had to be this way, the two of them standing together, fighting for each other no matter what.

Daryl stared at her for a long minute, uncaring of the tears making watery paths through the filth on his face, then so, so slowly lifted a trembling hand to touch her swollen, bloody left cheek. “Gonna be a good one.”

A little swirl of warmth burst in her belly, and Beth cracked a smile. Lord did it hurt, but the pain was worth it. Worth it because it made Daryl smile, too, tiny even by his standards but she saw it. Saw it and felt it and it was the greatest thing in the world right now. “You should see the other guy.”

He let out a huffing sort of laugh, and she chuckled, too. It wasn’t funny, not really. Not when she thought about what she had to do to Lyle to get away. But she remembered hearing Daddy talk once about finding humour in dark places being its own sort of therapy, and that was never more appropriate than it was these days. Than it was right now. Daryl turned his palm to cradle her cheek, too, and for a long moment they just looked at each other, an echo of that familiar spark dancing between them.

When their hands fell away they met together in the centre of the table in a tangle of shaky fingers, Daryl’s unusually pale and cool against hers. She hadn’t forgotten the attention he needed and she was sure he hadn’t either, but now that she knew he was willing to listen—even if some dark part of his mind would always rebel against the truth of things—she wanted to make damn sure he heard what she knew in her heart.

“They hurt both of us,” she said, sliding her thumbs along the tops of his. “They took you and they tried to stop me and none of this is on you, all right?”

Daryl’s only answer was a little bob of his head and the jiggle in his lip that meant he was chewing at the inside. But Beth could see the thoughts churning there behind the wrinkle in his brow. That constant battle inside his head between what he had known his whole life and what he maybe was starting to believe now. All she could do was keep on telling him in the hopes that he might grab hold of her words and keep them close, use them to cushion that delicate part inside, protect it from what threatened to shatter it, and remember. Remember and believe it, because it was the truth, because she believed it and somewhere along the way Beth was certain he had come to the decision that her belief in something might just hold more weight than the whispers of that dark prowling thing that should have died a long time ago.

Daryl’s breath shook out of him, and he tugged on her hands. “C’mere.”

Her chair moved across the floor with a teeth-jarring scrape in her haste to get to him, and she fell into his arms so hard the impact jolted daggers through her skull and made Daryl gasp and tense even as he pulled her tight to his chest. Despite his injuries, the strength of Daryl’s arms across her back was immense and he crushed her to him so hard she could barely breathe, but there wasn’t a force in this world that would make her pull away.

A tremor rolled right through her chest and down into the floor. “I thought I lost you.”

The words fell out without her permission, without conscious thought of even bringing them to light. Muffled though they were in the wall of Daryl’s chest, the moment they were out he pulled his arms tighter. Pressed his face into the top of her head and breathed a shuddery breath down over her scalp.

“Me too.”

The wound in her forehead throbbed, raw and angry from the roughness of the denim pressed against it but she pushed her face deeper, until she felt the same bare ache through her whole face. Felt the depth of Daryl’s breathing and relished in the pain because it meant she was still alive. It meant they were alive. Alive and still together despite the odds stacked against them.

Only when the tremble returned to Daryl’s body, rolling to the surface in overlapping waves, did Beth pull out of his arms. Again her thoughts flickered to the bed in the corner. Soon. Soon they could rest, safe and warm in each other’s arms.

Beth couldn’t see the evidence of the wound in his flank from where she stood, between his knees in front of his chair, but she hadn’t forgotten the way it gaped open in the beam of her flashlight, ragged and bleeding. “You need stitches.”

“Mmm.” Daryl’s good eye flicked over her face, prompting the wounds there to sting beneath his scrutiny. “So do you.”

She probably did, though she had avoided looking at the mirror behind the sink on purpose. “You first.”

It took another long moment of staring, and that little wrinkle deepening in his forehead again before Daryl sighed and gave another short nod and dropped his gaze down to his lap.

“A’right.”  His fingers toyed with the hems of his shirts, yellow plaid and faded brown hanging down beneath the filthy denim. “You gonna need…?”

A new little knot pulled in Beth’s gut, and she swallowed, realizing what must lie beneath that seemingly innocent question. She pressed her fingertips into his thighs and locked her gaze to his face, even though he couldn’t see it. “Yeah. If you—if you can.”

“Beth…” He didn’t look up at her, keeping his focus instead on his fingers pulling at a loose thread from the worn ends of fabric. “There’s, uh… I got… I—fuck.

His breath puffed hard through his nose, and he twisted his fingers up in that dangling thread until they purpled at the ends.

Beth covered his twisting hands with hers and squeezed tight, forcing him to stop. “Daryl, you don’t… you don’t have to say.”

He finally looked up, that one good eye on full alert as he studied her face. Beneath her hand the thread broke from the shirt, snapping loud in the otherwise quiet room. He stared at her, chewing at his already bloody lip like a dog gnawing at a bone, eyes flicking over face, brow twitching inward. The moment he understood, his good eye opened wide and he sucked in a deep breath, one that almost had him curling into himself if not for her hold on his hands.

Beth always figured he just preferred to keep the scars hidden, like she did with her bracelets. A practice that made sense to her on so visceral a level she hadn’t thought to question how he kept himself covered, never once going shirtless, even at night in the cabin or before, when Rick or Glenn or the other men would, except for that one time long ago when Daddy treated him for a bullet graze and a bolt wound. It never surprised her that he’d carry on with it, even when it was just the two of them on their own, even with how close they had become. She hadn’t even considered the idea that he didn’t realize she was aware of them at all.

It hadn’t been an issue yet, though with the way things were going between them it would have to be soon. Had he been fretting over how to tell her? He must have been, at least since the railway building. Maybe in some ways this was better, doing it now out of necessity, sooner rather than later. Better than him over thinking it more than he probably already had. Words were good; words could help, but sometimes not. Maybe it was easier to just let her see without the pressure of having to explain. She could put the pieces together on her own—which she had, even if he didn’t know it—and Daryl could take the space he needed to fill in the details when he was ready. If he ever would be.

Beth hadn’t thought about how to handle this situation when it inevitably presented itself because she didn’t know that it would, not quite like this. But as she stood there, holding tight to his trembling hands, watching a thousand thoughts flash behind Daryl’s one good eye, she knew what she was gonna do.

She let go of Daryl’s hand to cup his cheek again and waited until his gaze followed. “You trust me, right?”

Beth.” The word was a breath, a quiver of air, and Daryl abandoned his efforts at unravelling his shirt to cup her cheek, too, fingers curling deep into her mud-caked hair. “You know I do.”

She did, though hearing him say it was as good as any fire, any blanket at warming her right up inside.  Leaning up on her toes, Beth brushed her lips against his. Gently, ‘cause neither one of them was in any shape to be kissing right now, but she needed to feel his lips against hers, even fleetingly.  When she dropped back down she kept her eyes locked on Daryl’s, and stepped back toward her chair to hang his vest over the back of it.

It wasn’t the same, she knew that, but it was something. Something she could do so he wasn’t the only one rendered even a little bit vulnerable, no matter that she wasn’t afraid of this. Not at all. She started in on the first of the buttons, Daryl looking on, following her hands as she worked. Sweater first, then flannel, both of them folded and placed on the empty chair to deal with later. The weight of his gaze pressed down on her shoulders as she gripped the hem of her yellow polo, every bit as heavy as his arm might be if he tucked her beneath it and pulled her close to his body. She pulled it over her head, ignoring the protest through her shoulders, and dropped it to the floor behind her, forgotten as she stood there in her bra and jeans, Daryl’s eyes blazing as she reached for her wrist.

Only then did she notice her bracelets were gone. Somewhere in the midst of all the action she must have lost them, but for the first time she could remember the prospect of that didn’t make her stomach clench. Didn’t drive a wedge of panic through her sternum, having her wrist uncovered where anybody might see. She glided her thumb first over the thin red line she made by accident a few hours earlier, then the pale pink scar she put there on purpose a lifetime ago. When she lifted her head, Daryl’s eyes drifted up from her wrist to meet hers, and something clicked there, in the midst of that weighty gaze, between the lines of that tether stretching so tight it hummed, singing louder the longer they stared.

Something which tugged her in an entirely different way, but it was just a flash, gone too quick for her to get a read on it. Before she could try to figure it out, Daryl pushed his chair back from the table with a little grunt and slid to the floor, lips set into a tight line as he reached for the first button on his jacket with shaking fingers.

Sweat beaded on his forehead from the effort it took to ease the denim over his shoulders and off his arms. Beth wanted to help him, as he had helped her do the same only a few days ago, but this was different. He had to be the one to do this so she stood back and let him, tying her hands into a knot behind her back to keep from reaching out for him. Not unless he asked, though it hurt watching him struggle. Listening to the little whine in the back of his throat every time he moved the wrong way or fought to get an arm free from a clinging sleeve.

The blood stain stood out stark against the dingy white of his undershirt, once he got the top layers off. Aside from the obvious wound, smaller patches of dried blood speckled the shirt all over his chest and it was probably the same around behind him. Because there were no buttons to undo, he had to work the undershirt off over his head, and the little whine from before turned into something almost like a strangled sob by the time he managed it. When the undershirt finally dropped to the floor behind him, Daryl slid back into the chair and shut his eyes, trembling so hard the wood rattled beneath him.

Still rooted to the spot, Beth swept her eyes over his bare chest and abdomen to assess the damage. Abrasions mostly, a few cuts that wouldn’t even need to be bandaged once she got them clean.  The bruising was the worst of it, large swollen patches of skin ranging from angry red to a purple so dark it was almost black, but she’d been watching. It hurt him to breathe deep, but he could, and moreover he was, and the rise and fall of his chest was the same on both sides. He ran, before, when they fled from the men, and it might’ve been hard on him but he still did it. If he had broken a rib badly enough to puncture a lung, he wouldn’t have made it out of the woods. Maybe not even out of the compound. Same if something was bleeding in his belly. He was bruised there, too, and swollen where the bruises were, but otherwise the shape he ought to be, not distended with pooling blood, and he wasn’t guarding himself in pain like he would be if something had ruptured inside.

If he let her, she’d take a closer look later, prod his belly just to be sure, press her ear to his back to hear the sounds of his breath flowing freely into both of his lungs. For now, though, she had other things to worry about. Goosebumps rose up on her bare arms but she wasn’t cold; the fire blazing away at her back kept the room toasty warm.

Daryl’s eyes stayed shut as Beth closed the distance between them, so she set her hand on his forearm and gave it a squeeze. Intent on saying something but her words weren’t working just now either, and Daryl’s breath hitched, a little bump in the deep, steady rhythm, like he knew what was coming next no matter that she couldn’t say it. Beth wasn’t certain he could say anything, either, but she waited in case he was going to, watching his lip shake as a minute passed before he braced his arms once more on the table top and leaned forward, head dropped down between them. Bare back on full display as she stepped around behind him at last, following the length of his arm to his shoulder with her fingers so he’d know the whole time just where she was.

Knowing about the scars and seeing them were two different things, and what she pieced together from what she knew of his past and the glimpse she got that day at the farm couldn’t prepare her for the reality. For the brutality of these marks, the remnants of a stolen childhood carved into his skin, laid there by the man who should have protected him from this. Who should have jumped in front of that belt and taken every last one of these blows so Daryl didn’t have to, except that man had done this to him. How could—oh god, how could anyone do that to their own child? To any child? That small boy who once wandered out into the snow in the middle of the night because it was pretty and he wanted to see it before it got spoiled. That same boy, older and hungry and all on his own, who spent all day searching the town on foot just to find the home of some lost little dog because he couldn’t take it home.

It was too much, too—too something, and her mind whirled around trying to process the stark truth of this, to reconcile it with how she’d thought the world was before and how it had never, ever been like that for Daryl.

No warm old farmhouses. No broken porridge bowls and dancing in the kitchen. No hugs and kisses and warm, safe beds with the comfort of voices and the distant sound of music as he drifted off to sleep. Just ugliness and pain and blood and death, badness she couldn’t even begin to understand, long before the dead started walking.

 Her parched throat closed up on her and a scream gathered in her chest, a billowing black beast clawing and slashing at her insides, but she couldn’t, she refused, to let it out of its bony cage, to let it anywhere near this place, this room, this moment as she stood at Daryl’s back. He trusted her and she wasn’t going to betray that trust by leaving a mark of her own, even one she couldn’t see.

Oh, Daryl. Daryl.

There weren’t any words she could offer him, none that wouldn’t fall flat or shatter in pieces at her feet, so she didn’t try. She didn’t honestly know what to do so she went with what came so naturally to her, and carefully laid her palm back between his shoulder blades. The same place she had just minutes ago. The very same place her breath once fell as she and Daryl lay together on the floor of an old railway building and released a month’s worth of pent-up tension.  The same place where she once pressed her face and held him as he poured out his grief, there in the weeds next to the spectre of his past just waiting to be burned.

He shuddered so hard it had to have come from somewhere very deep inside him, and he kept shaking, but Beth left her hand where it was. Pressed her palm tight to his clammy back, felt the puckered ridge of tissue beneath the heel of her hand and the tip of her pinky, the scar angling up toward the tattooed creatures at his right shoulder. The tremble didn’t go away, but as she stayed there, making little sweeps back and forth with the tips of her fingers, it settled a little bit at a time, no longer rattling the room, but more like a deep hum running up through her arm from his back, a ripple swirling around her head and shoulders, a weight in her belly that hadn’t really gone away.

Breathing out slowly, Beth grit her teeth and reached with her other hand to scratch his scalp through his hair. Something which normally comforted him and she hoped it’d do the same thing now. Hoped he had meant it when he told her maybe you can find somethin’, some way to touch him to hold back the darkness when it threatened to swallow him whole, the way he did for her. The groan he let out was involuntary, and not quite contented, but enough, as he tipped his head back a bit to let her reach more of him. Beth buried her fingers deep into the damp strands, scratched her nails even deeper than that, and the next time he moaned she was certain it came from someplace other than the trembling one she dragged to the surface.

After a few minutes, she leaned closer, the whole of her arm pressing down the centre of his spine so she could whisper in his ear. “Can you get up on the table?”

“Ye—” He coughed, and reached shakily for his glass of water at last, gulping down all of it before giving her an abrupt little nod. “Yeah.”

He moved slowly but he made it up there, positioning his body with his back to the fire, higher up so she could more easily assess the damage and get at the wound. Beth took the minute while he got settled to breathe away the little tremble threatening to shake in her hands. To put aside how she felt about what she’d just seen to process later, in private, where Daryl couldn’t see.

His whole left side was scraped and red, already heading toward purple, and a mixture of the same tread-patterned bruises and small abrasions filled the spaces between the scars over the remainder of his back. Her tampon tamponade had worked just the way she hoped, absorbing as it was meant to do and expanding to put pressure where it was needed to stem the bleeding. Only the smallest amount of fresh blood trickled out when she tugged gently at the string to pull it free and flushed with the saline solution from the first aid kit. The cut was deep, though, and full wood splinters she had to tweeze out one by one. Closing it up wasn’t going to be a simple matter of stitching his skin, and she hadn’t ever done this herself, a layered closure like she was certain Daryl needed, but she had seen Daddy do it many times and went over the steps in her head until she was knew she had them right.

There was no anaesthesia. Not even a jar of moonshine or a bottle of wine he could drink to dull the pain, but Daryl endured as he was practically made to do. First the cleaning, the digging around for splinters, then two rounds of sutures. Making strangled grunts which stuck inside his chest along with his breath, but mostly he just sat still and quiet and stiff as a board, but stoic as ever while she poked and tugged and tied him back together.

When it was all done and bandaged and he was breathing normally again, Beth dipped a cloth into the remaining water, tepid now in the washbowl, and climbed up onto the table behind him. The wound was going to scar, despite her efforts at making sure it was tidy. It may not be the same, but it stung in her eyes anyway, the thought of adding yet another mark to a body already bearing more than its share of them. There still weren’t words, nothing she could say to change a lifetime of shame and guilt and pain, all the things she was sure he held deep inside when he thought about them, but she could show him, maybe, or try to. Find some way to let him know that no scar, not one, not any number of them, could ever change who he was in her heart.

She swept her cloth across his shoulders and he sucked in a sharp little breath, back going rigid beneath her hand, spine snapping straight up like the trunk of a tree, but she didn’t stop. Another pass, more pressure this time, enough to leave his skin shining pink in its wake. Daryl shuddered, another that seemed to rise up from the core of him, and when it subsided he took in a deep breath, and another, the straight of his spine relaxing inch by inch until his body curled forward again. He let go of the table edge and moved his hands into his lap with a slower, softer shudder, and something like her name whispered out on his breath.

The sweat and grime and blood came away, even if the rest of it could not. When the washbowl ran dry, Beth discarded her cloth and pressed her forehead to the back of his neck.

“You all right?”

Daryl’s arm came up and around so he could cup the back of her head in his palm, and she leaned toward his touch.

“Yeah, Beth.” He curled his fingers into her hair, voice little more than a whisper between the pop and crackle of the flames behind them. “I’m all right.”

For the first time tonight, she believed him. It probably shouldn’t be that simple, but if it was, Beth wouldn’t waste energy on questioning it. The worst was over, the big reveal. She saw the scars and whatever thoughts he’d had about that before, however they might have led him astray, it hadn’t gone down the way he feared and maybe he was simply relieved to have that weight lifted. He didn’t have to hide anymore, didn’t have this big secret hanging over him, and that had to feel better. Even if how he felt about the scars themselves hadn’t changed.

Beth slid down from the table, and when she came around in front, Daryl’s gaze was warm and sleepy, but his eyes were dry and his fingers lay loosely at his knees. He eased down to the floor, too, and stood in front of her, reaching for and taking one of her hands to hold with both of his.

Beth smiled, the biggest one she could manage without hurting her face. “You should finish washing up. Get nice and warm and clean.”

Daryl’s gaze raked over her, from her forehead down, the tiniest of smiles pulling now at his lips. “You should, too.”

She should. They were both still filthy, still had wounds needing cleaning before they could get to the food waiting for them on the counter. The prospect of warm water was a tempting one at any time but now especially, and she stared up at Daryl’s face as he stared down at hers, a question of sorts swirling between them.

They moved as one, in the end. Daryl reaching for her belt just as she reached for his, and they both laughed, soft little breathy things which tangled like ribbons between them and brought a flush of heat to her cheeks, and a matching stain of pink to his. For the first time tonight her belly fluttered with something other than nerves, and she was exhausted and starving but it felt so good.

“Go on,” she said, lifting her hands out of the way, tilting her head to watch Daryl unbuckle her belt and work her jeans past her hips.

When he could go no further she backed up to the counter, hopped on it so he could get at her boots and socks and finally her jeans, tossing each item behind him without particular care to where they landed. She did the same for him, after, back over at his chair, and he stood down on freshly bared feet and lifted his arms so she could get at his belt, too. The moment she pulled it open his jeans fell right down to the floor, so loose on him now she didn’t even need to unfasten them, and Daryl—wearing the closest thing he could manage to a smirk—stepped out of the pool they made at his feet and stood there in front of her once again.

Their last night in the cabin they stood like this, Beth in her shorts and billowy top, Daryl in his undershirt and sweats, gazing at each other across the small amount of space between them. She had admired him then, his lean body, broad shoulders and narrow waist, muscles toned from hard work. From the rigors of surviving, both this world and the last. She admired him now in much the same way and she didn’t think there was any shame in that. No doubt that his body was attractive to her, to the part of her which noticed things like that. Her inner woman drawn so naturally to his outer man. What lay beneath the surface, though, that was what stirred her heart. The person he truly was under the armour, the one she had come to know better than anyone else in the world. That was the part of him she loved, the heart and soul of this brave, broken, beautiful man who gazed back at her as though everything he was to her, she was to him, too.

Tearing apart from him, from that familiar gaze of warm honey in her belly, fluttery wings in her chest, and a tingle across her scalp like gentle, combing fingers, was not easy, but she did it. His eyes followed her as she gathered up the washbowl and moved to the sink, warm and thick, a pleasant weight across her back. She hadn’t known what it meant, the first time she caught him looking at her this way. Hadn’t known then how their story would play out but she wouldn’t change it now for the world.

There weren’t really many walls between them anymore, just open doorways waiting to be crossed. The slow trickle of warm water filled the bowl and Beth reached behind her, shoulders protesting the twist as she unclipped her bra.  The little click of the hooks echoed louder than it should have, and the already warm air grew thicker, humid. Daryl’s gaze caressed the bare expanse of her back as she pulled the straps from her arms and tossed the faded pink pieces of torn lace down to the stone floor.

Open doorways. Ledges she kept waiting to jump over without realizing they already had.

Her nipples hardened into points as she turned around, head held high to meet Daryl’s fiery gaze not so very far behind her. Heat rose up from her belly to her forehead, swirling in her lungs, beating along to the rising staccato of her heart, but she wasn’t nervous. She wanted this. She wanted Daryl to look at her, to see her, and his eyes burned back at hers, holding her there a long, long moment before they slowly slipped down to take her in.

She wasn’t Maggie, and she never would be. Her breasts were small but they were hers, and she arched her back proudly and let him look his fill.

When he did cross the room and stepped in close in front of her, he made no secret of his wandering gaze, trailing like fingertips down her breastbone, brushing over her nipples, tickling her belly. Beth pressed her palm to his uninjured hip and urged him closer until only a few inches of space remained between them. Another day, another time, he might press her up against the counter and she’d welcome that, but tonight it was enough to feel the renewed heat of his body so close to hers.

He looked up at her as his big hand settled at the curve of her waist. “I remember this dream.”

His voice whispered out so low, Beth wasn’t sure she heard him right, and canted her head to the side as she moved her hand from his hip to squeeze his forearm. “Dream? Daryl—?”

But she couldn’t finish her thought, as just then Daryl lifted his other hand to trace his fingers along her collarbone, from her right shoulder down to where it met its twin and back up again. He looked back down and she followed his gaze to where her heart pounded so hard that her left breast jumped with every beat, and Beth forgot, for the moment, how to speak.

“Sun was comin’ up, all this golden light shining on you,” he said, still in that barely-there whisper, fingers touching her so lightly that her whole body shivered. “You turned around, just like you did. Weren’t wearing nothin’ on top. Was just you.”

The thought was there, a flash of worry just before Daryl’s hand at her waist started to rise, for whether the real Beth before him could possibly live up to the Beth in his dream. His thumb brushed her skin just beneath her breast, where her heart was pounding and the light from the candle on the wall beside them painted her in flickering orange-gold, and Beth let the thought fall away to focus on his face, and the look of awe etched upon it.

Daryl’s breath washed warm on her cheeks as he flicked his eyes up to meet hers once more. “Just like this.”

Her breath caught and whirled inside her lungs, two little tornadoes with a pounding drum between them. When she found a word, it was a breathy thing, barely worth saying at all but it slipped past her parted lips all the same. “Yeah?”

Daryl’s fingers came to rest in the hollow between her collarbones, and his thumb swept close, though still not quite touching her. “Only thing different is you had wings.”

She laughed, a thing of mostly breath with a bit of gravel thrown in, and her heart beat so fast she was the slightest bit dizzy in the loveliest of ways. “I could put your vest back on.”

The groan that rumbled out of Daryl in response jolted low in her belly. “Girl.”

She was tired, before. She was something else now. It wasn’t quite enough to overcome the exhaustion, the hunger, the need to get the both of them cleaned and warmed and fed and rested, but it was there. It was pleasant. It was something they both needed right along with the rest of it and she was determined to enjoy it while it lasted. Beth let out another breathy laugh, just as involuntary as the last, and Daryl’s tongue swept out to wet his split lower lip, his gaze on her face ten times warmer than the fire.

“What happened next?” she asked, smiling when his brow wrinkled in confusion. “You know, in your dream?”

Her question brought a fresh flush of pink to his cheeks, and it drew her thoughts back to that morning—to yesterday, though it felt like so much time had passed since then—when she lay awake while he murmured her name and thrust against her in his sleep. It wasn’t difficult to imagine how his dream might have gone, and the way he gazed at her hooked onto those thoughts and dragged them further. To that place in her head where her own dream lived, flashes of memory too real, too vivid for something that never truly happened, nestled there alongside that glowing ember that had been burning for Daryl Dixon for a long, long time.

The heat in her cheeks deepened, and she couldn’t quite seem to breathe right. “Oh…”

Daryl hummed, and leaned in closer. Not quite enough to make all the space disappear but close, and he stared at her face and just barely grazed the underside of her breast with his thumb. Beth tightened her grip on his forearm and nodded. A quick little bob of her head that she knew Daryl saw from the way his good eye half closed, heavy and pleased as he dropped his gaze away from her face to look down.

Beth followed, taking in the sight of his thumb making slow, sweeping arcs. A little higher each time but slow enough that she had to dig her fingernails into his forearm to keep from grabbing his hand and pushing it onto her breast. Daryl’s breath flowed out in a deep rush and Beth was powerless to stop the quivering little moan floating out in response.

“Heart’s poundin’,” Daryl whispered, voice almost breaking with how raspy it had gotten.

“I can feel it.” A silly statement to make, but it was the truth. Her heart pounded for Daryl and had done for some time and if he didn’t know it already, was high time he learned.

“Yeah,” he breathed, as his thumb traced along the edge of her areola, “me too.”

No doubt he could feel hers, pounding away beneath her ribs. But he maybe meant his, too, the way his chest rise and fell just a little too deeply. The tremble in his fingers had nothing to do with exhaustion, as he resumed his path from her collarbones down her sternum, until he held her the same on both sides. Two big hands wrapped around her rib cage, two thumbs sweeping up to brush her nipples at last. Beth arched her back, pushed herself into his touch, dared him silently to keep going and Daryl hummed from somewhere very deep in his belly.

She shuddered. Couldn’t help it, the way the sound he made and the sensation of his touch rippled down inside her. Daryl flicked over the taut peaks again, and then again until they tightened even more. Until they grew achingly hard beneath the pads of his thumbs and oh, she wanted more. More of this. More of Daryl and his magic fingers anywhere he’d like to use them. She wanted everything with an ache that pulsed from deep inside, but in wanting she remembered just where they were and why. Saw all over again the blood and dirt still clinging to Daryl’s body. Smelled the acrid sweat and earthy mud and the tang of copper covering hers. The wounds on her face stung in reminder, the deeper injuries beneath them throbbing with a raw, renewed ache, and she didn’t want to stop—she never wanted to stop—but she knew that they should.

Daryl seemed to come to the same realization a moment after she did. One final pass and he shifted his hands to cup her breasts, but his thumbs lay still. As he curled forward to press his forehead to hers, the spell didn’t break so much as it retreated, falling back into its slow burn in the background, and Beth was torn between feelings of relief and regret that they didn’t have the time or the energy tonight to explore where this could go.

A few minutes passed while they stood together, hearts slowing down to normal speeds, lungs falling into that synchronized rhythm they knew so well. They didn’t exchange words, just gazes as they pulled apart far enough to see, staring at each other in that way they had for so long now. That tethered stare that was so hard to break. Nothing had changed. Nothing stopped. Beth saw Daryl’s newfound boldness shining in his one good eye and the warmth inside stirred all over again with the truth.

Because it was him and it was her. They were already everything they need to be and the rest of it would come as it was ready.

He turned her toward the sink and she went without question, leaned over the basin so Daryl could rinse the mud from her hair. It swirled down the drain in a whirlpool of dirty water as he scratched into her scalp with his fingernails and that bar of gritty soap. Each drag of his nails drew another deep groan, which carried over when her hair was clean and he took a soapy washcloth to her sweaty back.

After, they stood side by side at the sink, brushing their teeth while they waited for the washbowl to fill up again. Beth took her first good look at the damage to her face. One eye was already black from Mike’s punch and the other well on its way, splotchy and purple from her forehead to her cheek after her meet and greet with a rough stone wall. Come morning, she would probably look like a bouquet of violets, but for tonight the two wounds hold most of her attention. One above her right eye and the other on her left cheek, two caterpillars curving toward each other from opposite corners of her face. When she carefully washed around them they oozed fresh trickles of blood, and she knew what Daryl was thinking because she was thinking it, too, but they could deal with that later, once she finished washing the rest of the dirt and the sweat from her body.

Whoever brought the piles of clothing placed clean underwear on top, boxers for Daryl that barely looked worn and panties for her still sealed in the package. Beth didn’t look and neither did Daryl, when they stripped out of their old things and tossed them away. She wondered if she was supposed to feel strange, or uncomfortable maybe, standing naked with Daryl beside her, washing between her legs while he did the same, but she didn’t.

What she did feel was tired. Tired and sore and hungry, but she was happy, too, in some weird euphoric sort of way. It made no sense yet perfect sense all at once, and didn’t fade when they pulled on their new underthings and Daryl once again took her by the shoulders to face the mirror straight on. He stood behind her, palm sliding around to splay out over her belly, as his eyes roamed over the reflection of her face.

“Stitches.” A half grunted command and a toss of his head toward the door. “Paramedic guy’s still up.”

But Beth was already shaking her head no. She didn’t want Harrison, or whatever his name was. If she had to be stitched there was only one option. “I want you to do it.”

Daryl huffed through his nose and dropped his chin down to rest atop her shoulder, so their eyes were almost level in the mirror. “Nah. You don’t.”

“I do.”

He sighed, a weighty thing which pulled his lips into a frown. “Don’t think...”

“You ever stitched anyone up before?”

He shrugged, and his working eyebrow turned cautiously inward as he gave a little shake of his head. “Just Merle.”

“Okay.” Beth pressed her hand into his palm and stroked across the top of his knuckles. “Then you can do me, too.”

Even with half his face swollen and barely mobile, Beth could see that he wasn’t sold on the idea. “Gonna scar.”

Oh. Of course they would scar. Surely Daryl must have known no matter who stitched her up there would always be a mark. But that was the root of the problem, not the stitching itself but the fact that she would be marked, out where everyone could see. Where he could see. Where every day she would look in the mirror and remember how he failed her. Except he hadn’t. These weren’t marks of shame for either one of them. She earned them, and refused to feel bad about them when their existence meant that she and Daryl made it out alive.

Daryl grunted softly, but nodded his head into her shoulder, and only then did Beth realize she had said all of that out loud. Good, though, because he needed to hear it, and she squeezed his fingers and tried to smile despite the pain in her face. “It’ll be like the others. A part of me, but not all of me. Please do this for me, Daryl. Please.”

His lip jiggled hard as he chewed at it inside, but after a moment he gave another hard nod and stepped away. “Make sure I don’t do nothin’ wrong.”

“Deal.”

The first aid supplies were still at the table. Daryl refused the tools, choosing instead to use his hands alone like she had back at the farmhouse. The needle stung with every prick but all the swelling rendered her face fairly numb and she barely felt it as he worked, big fingers deceptively gentle, nimble, and for all his reluctance he proceeded with enough basic skill that his stitching of Merle must have happened on the regular.

The stitches weren’t tidy. She might even call them ugly, but the wound edges met in two clean lines when he was through. Daryl ducked his head when she told him so, like he always used to when somebody offered him praise he didn’t know how to accept. He didn’t refute it. Didn’t mutter at her that it ain’t nothin’, just offered her a cautious smile as she directed him over to the bed in the corner she hadn’t stopped thinking about all night.

Candles were doused and the lanterns put out, leaving just the glow of the fire to light the room. Beth gathered up the supper that had been left for them and joined Daryl on the bed. More water, fresh bread with butter and a rich, thick stew full of chunks of vegetables and some sort of meat that Daryl thought might be goose. They ate their fill and didn’t dare question the luxury of this kind of meal, and afterward stacked the dirty dishes on the hearth so neither one of them had to leave the bed.

They slipped into it instead. Beth’s head hit the pillow and her thoughts began to unravel at the edges and slide away, bit by bit, flitting out of her head and rising like heat up into the beams of the ceiling high above. The sheets smelled of home, of the farm. Of laundry hanging out all day on the line, infused with the scent of the outdoors. Autumn wind and rain-wet leaves, sap-laden trees and the barest hints of horse. She burrowed down into them, breathing deep, sighing even deeper when Daryl’s hand settled on her belly as he tucked up close behind her. Like the very first time, when he pressed his face into her neck and breathed her in, her own breath shuddered out and her belly swooped and her chest fluttered with that flock of sprightly winged creatures inside.

 She sank into his body, molding her back to his chest, the warmth of his bare skin burning into hers, the heat of his breath tingling at the back of her neck. He drew those circles on her belly, humming into her neck when the muscles beneath quivered and jumped and she let out that little sigh she couldn’t help making.  The one he loved to pull out of her every night at the cabin. Another followed the first, when he trailed his fingers up from her belly to pluck at her nipple. The gentlest of tugs which pulled a shiver up from toes and made her laugh, a soft breathy giggle that stirred those wings all over again. Bolder now, he plucked again with a bit more vigor, a deep hum gathering in his throat when her nipple hardened and she let out a soft whimper.

“Night, Beth,” he murmured, and with one final pull, covered her breast with his hand, the little peak fitting perfectly in the arch of his palm.

He sighed into her neck, deep and content. Beth trailed a path across his knuckles before laying her hand over top of his and pressing in, just as tight as she would if he’d stayed at her belly. Her head swirled, floating somewhere above her now as the warmth of the blanket and Daryl’s body eased her closer to sleep.

This long day was over. She didn’t know quite what waited for them on the other side of it. On the other side of that big heavy door, either, but for now it didn’t matter. They were here. They were safe. Warm and alive and together, and that was enough.

That was all she could hope for.

 “Night, Daryl,” she whispered, the words sounding thick and dreamy to her own ears. “Sweet dreams.”