Daryl opened his eyes only to find the dirty white ceiling. He’d spent nearly six months starting every new day in that way, and even if he had thought it to be impossible, every morning he hated it even more. It seemed like he had an unlimited supply of rancor to give to even the most insignificant detail.
He heard the hoot of some birds outside, and he knew that soon everyone would be up, making more noise and speaking loudly. With a grunt, he got up and took his crossbow, which was resting against the wall beside the sofa, before he opened the door as silently as possible and left.
Alexandria was as quiet as it had always been in the early hours, when the sun had just breached the horizon and the only sounds to be heard were those of the forest. He stretched and headed towards the entry, not surprised in the least when he saw Paul walking towards him.
“Mornin’, Dixon” he said as he had every other morning, knowing that Daryl wasn’t going to answer him. Paul opened the gate and smiled at him weakly, “Careful out there”.
Daryl looked at him an instant before he followed his way. Paul was almost fifty and he had a wife and two children who lived with him in Alexandria. He was one of the original citizens of the safe zone, and he had lost a brother and one of his children in the process of building the walls that now kept them safe. From his wrinkled face a thousand stories could be read, stories that Daryl would never hear or want to hear. Honestly, Paul was one of the few habitants of Alexandria that he liked. He was an old school man, the kind of man who just minded his own business, the only one who never had tried to make him say more than two words. He just opened the gate for him every morning, promising not to tell Deanna about his constant trips to the forest. Daryl knew they didn’t like people going out there so often but he honestly didn’t care. He might have lived there, having nowhere else to go, but that didn’t at all mean that Alexandria was his home.
He hadn’t had a home for a while.
He tried to ignore the already familiar pain that was settling in his chest and went into the woods, hearing the chatter of the first people awake behind him. When they were outside, he was already gone.
He wasn’t sure how much time he’d been out there. Sometimes he thought he had spent hours, and when he would come back no one would have noticed his absence, and then when he disappeared for what he would have described as minutes, he would come back to find his whole group looking for him in a panic and Deanna trying to talk to him, trying to making him “come around”. Those times were the worst. When that happened, he had to give explanations, grunt some kind of apology and disappear again before someone could try to stop him.
He’d been like that for months and didn’t know how much more time he could stand at Alexandria. Daryl loved his family; but the more time he spent locked up there, the more his world seemed to be falling apart. The only thing he wanted to do was to forget every single thing that crossed his mind. He wanted to sleep, but when he lay on the couch that he had adopted as his own –since he had refused to accept a room as everyone else had and Deanna hadn’t allowed him to keep sleeping on the porch- his brain seemed to activate even more. All kinds of thoughts wandered through his mind and he was assaulted by the memories. When he’d want to react, the first light of dawn would be streaming through the window and he would have slept just a few hours, if he were lucky. Hunting wasn’t something that relieved him too much either. He hadn’t caught anything in a long time, in part because he had the small hope that Alexandrians would kick him out if he wasn’t useful anymore and also in part because he was unable to focus. He was attacked by the same memories that attacked him at night. The only thing he did was recall over and over again everything that had happened, like some kind of mantra. No trusting again, no opening up again, no talking, no feeling, no loving again.
No living again. Just surviving.
It was pretty simple. It was what he had been doing since world went to shit, surviving and fighting, just because it was what he had always done, being cornered and having to fight to get out. But now he wasn’t fighting anymore. He just did the bare minimum he needed to do to keep going. Breathing, eating, sleeping a bit, breathing, eating, and sleeping a bit…
A life like that wasn’t truly a life. He was sure that anyone in his place would have melted in the warm water of the showers, would have eaten and slept for hours, would have lain sunk in a mattress for the first time in years. He was convinced that someone would look at him like he was insane if he said that he didn’t want to sleep in a fucking mattress, that if it were up to him he wouldn’t be there at all. If he could choose where to sleep, anywhere, anytime, he would have gone back to the funeral home, to that coffin, looking at that clean ceiling and letting himself be lulled by Beth’s voice.
He gritted his teeth. He hadn’t said her name, thought her name in a while. He preferred not to, it was better that way. He had convinced himself that if he didn’t say her name out loud, if he didn’t think about her directly, if he just referred to her as anything but her actual name in his mind, recalled his memories using ambiguous shapes, his thoughts about her would just end up fading like smoke, she’d just be a blurred memory in the back of his mind. Yeah, that was what he had said to himself. After all, wasn’t that what everyone else had done? What Rick, Carol, Sasha, Glenn and even Maggie had done? No one ever said her name. Maybe all of them expected the same as him. Maybe they all wanted her to disappear, like she had never existed at all.
He realized that he had been walking for a while with his gaze fixed on the floor, without paying attention to the track that he had in front of him, and that the sun was already steadily climbing in the sky. A drop of sweat started rolling down his forehead. The heat was so suffocating in that time of the year that sometimes, not even the thickness of the treetops were enough to protect him from the sunrays. He panted, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand, and looked around. It was then when he saw from the corner of his eye a brief gleam.
He approached slowly, letting the pendant slip between his fingers. It was a silver chain with a white opal engraved with a savannah sparrow. He looked at it for a few seconds, with half of the pendant still hanging in the branch of the tree.
“You ever had pets?” Beth asked as they walked. Daryl made a grunt she understood as a no, and she turned to look at him, “Not even a fish?”
“The hell would I want a fish for?” he countered in a harsher tone that he intended. However, Beth didn’t seem offended. She was used to his bad manners, and despite the fact that he felt like shit when he talked to her like that, she seemed to understand that he probably wouldn’t ever change. He cleared his throat, awkward, “My parents didn’t even know how to look after Merle and me, so it’s a relief we didn’t have pets”.
“We had lots of animals on the farm” Beth said, “but my daddy didn’t like us getting fond of them ‘cause… well, we ate them. And I loved horses, but they weren’t exactly pets ya know?”.
Beth stayed silent and Daryl didn’t say anything either, encouraging her to keep with her story or dropping the subject if she didn’t want to continue. Then she inhaled deeply and kept going. Daryl swore he could hear her smiling.
“Then one stormy day, my dad got home soaked. He reached into his coat, and he pulled out a sparrow. The poor little thing was trembling with fear and he had a broken leg. Dad said we all had to take care of it until it got better, but in the end it was just me and him every day. It spent the whole winter with us until it recovered. Daddy said that sparrow reminded him of me” her smile widened when she said that, “it was… the best Christmas gift ever”. Daryl could have sworn he had seen her eyes cloud with tears, but the next second she was as smiling as usual, except for the same shadow of sadness that appeared in her face when she talked about his dad.
“I get why” Daryl muttered.
“I get why you reminded him of a sparrow” he said it so quickly that he himself didn’t even understood it very well, but he saw in her face that she had been able to get the words. He knew from the way her face lit up suddenly, the way she grinned from ear to ear. Before he could realize, Beth had moved closer and given him a brief kiss in the cheek. It was just an instant, but enough to make his face burn red. Beth laughed and squeezed his arm gently.
“Thanks Daryl” she said softly before she kept walking as if nothing had happened.
He had put it in his pocket without thinking twice. He knew that it wasn’t a smart idea. He knew that every time he saw it he would think of her. He knew it perfectly. The thing is that it reminded of Beth. And as much as he tried to do the opposite, he would always want to think about her. It hurt him, it destroyed him from inside, it left him exhausted, but at the same time it was the only thing that kept him going every day: just thinking about her.
He turned around and with the pendant in his pocket, he headed back towards Alexandria.
He walked for a while before he caught a glimpse of the gates. He was around ten meters away when he started hearing the rampage from inside. Daryl frowned, confused. It didn’t sound like it usually would. It seemed like people arguing, and for his sake, Daryl hoped that it wasn’t that jackass of Deanna’s son again, because he would end the beating that Glenn didn’t finish more than willingly. He reached the entry and knocked it in a specific order to make Paul know that he was there. This time, however, the man took more than usual to open the door.
“What’s wrong?” Daryl asked, hanging the crossbow on his back. Paul stepped aside to let him come in and shook his head, but he didn’t say anything else, “What?”
Paul didn’t answer. Daryl huffed, too tired to argue, and he went on his way, wanting to sit on the porch and clean his crossbow for a while before lunchtime.
He had not even taken three steps. Not even three steps when he saw her standing there, with her back facing him. He thought he was dreaming. He thought he had had too much sun out there and he was hallucinating. He even thought that maybe he had died in the forest and that’s why she was standing in front of him.
But then she turned around, and the shocked expression of her face made him know that he wasn’t dreaming. It was her: with different clothes, a new scar, a deeper gaze of those who have lived through too much, but it was her in all her glory.
“Beth,” he said, almost whispering. He was only a couple of meters away. He feared that if he raised his arm to touch her she’d vanish, but he was also afraid that she’d vanish anyway if he didn’t do something.
Before his brain could process the information, it had already made a decision. He felt his legs starting to move, but she was even faster. She threw herself against his chest, and he had surrounded her automatically, so strongly, so tightly, that he thought that he could break her something if he wasn’t careful, but at the same time too lost in that moment to even care about a few bruises. Besides, he was convinced that Beth was going to leave marks. She was hugging him fiercely and it seemed like nothing could ever separate her from his chest. He buried his face on her hair and closed his eyes.
“Beth,” he panted, the lump in his throat causing his voice to crack. He closed his mouth, embarrassed, and then she moved away slightly to look at his face. It was then when he saw that she had started crying a long time ago, but despite that, she managed to smile at him through her tears. He tried, but he just couldn’t. He was overwhelmed by the feelings of the moment. Instead, he rested his hands on her cheeks and gently wiped her tears before he hugged her again, “Beth”.
“I’m here,” she murmured, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m here”.
Daryl couldn’t contain the strangled sob that climbed up his throat. She held him tighter, like she was trying to squeeze him to death, before she stood on her toes and started leaving kisses in his face, like he was the most precious thing she had ever seen.
“I thought-” he started, but she cut him off.
As soon as their hug loosened, she took his hand. Her tiny hand fit perfectly in his. It was incredible how small it was. Daryl realized that he was looking at her hands, and when he lifted his head, found Beth piercing him with her eyes.
Beth raised his hand and gave him a soft kiss in the palm. Daryl watched her, amazed, until she moved closer to him. Daryl held her almost instinctively.
“You,” Daryl whispered, “you”.
She looked at him, understanding without any more words; like that conversation in the funeral home hadn’t been interrupted, like they were still there, the only ones left in the world. And then, he did what he had must done that night. He lowered his head and kissed her, her being completely ready, waiting for him, practically on her toes to reach him better. Without asking who would be watching them or what would they think, without thinking about anything that wasn’t Beth. She threw her arms around his neck to get even closer to him, and they both sighed almost in unison.
He didn’t know how long they were like that, but for when they withdrew from one another, Daryl saw all of his group reunited around them, looking at them with… understanding? Beth made that little gesture with her mouth that he had always found adorable and she moved away slightly, almost shy.
In that moment Daryl, without exactly knowing why, pulled out the pendant of his pocket and turned her around softly, set her hair aside and put it on. It wasn’t until then that he noticed his hands were shaking. Beth looked at him over her shoulder, and spun around to take his hand and bring it to her chest, just below the pendant that he had just given her so he could feel her heartbeats.
“I’ve missed you too, Daryl Dixon” she muttered.