Afterwards, Daryl would always remember seeing Beth Greene again after all this time as a moment that split into phases. The first one was denial; after all, he saw her die and even held her lifeless body, so no way on earth she could be alive. How does one even survive a gunshot like that? No, it was impossible. It must have been some sort of hallucination or a dream (he had a lot of both, especially right after) or someone that looked, which was ludicrous. But when he heard Rick stutter, "Beth?" in a voice that reminded Daryl of Rick's crazy time in prison, Daryl suddenly took notice of the scars on the girl's face – attributes of the time she spent with those psychos at Grady. After that, all the questions or doubts he had disappeared because it was Beth. It couldn't have been anyone else.
The next thing he felt was shock. As though his biggest and craziest dream but also his worst nightmare had come true, and now he was supposed to live with it somehow. (Nightmare because he would finally have to face his feelings and grief that he had never allowed himself to experience after the accident.) He could've never hoped for her return – wouldn't have ever thought it was even remotely possible – and just the fact that she was alive made him question the new world's laws, the ones he always thought cruel and unforgiving. What exactly did he do to deserve Beth's survival? That question would linger in his head for a very long time.
The last phase was desperation. After all, he had failed her. Didn't protect, predict and stop terrible things from happening to her, and now he had to somehow look her in the eye, being afraid of seeing there something that resembled disappointment. Knowing Beth as she had always been – the kindest person he knew – that officer Dawn at the hospital must have done something awful to the girl to provoke her to attempt a murder. The Beth he knew would have dreaded killing anyone other than a walker. Hell, she'd believed that even walkers deserved to be treated with respect. He'd never gotten the chance to ask what happened at that damn hospital before all of them showed up, and he wasn't sure he would ever summon enough courage to ask her now.
He stood there silently, watching as Maggie hugged Beth, sobbing quietly, while Beth remained calm and seemed to hesitate a little, before returning the hug. Rick's embrace came easier to her, and so did Carol's. And then there was Daryl, and he felt strangely uncomfortable when she looked at him for what seemed like the first time. Her eyes, just as big and blue as he remembered them, peered into him. At that, he remembered the moment they shared in that candle-lit kitchen, with her soft words and curious stares and him trying his best to man up and voice his thoughts, the ones she wanted to know about. Being the coward that he was, he had let her figure it out on her own. And she did.
Now, her eyes looked the same, but also different. Somewhat empty, without that familiar glimmer of faith somewhere deep within them. Somewhat empty, without that familiar glimmer of faith somewhere deep within them. And that realization echoed painfully in his chest. Had he not told her to leave without him, she wouldn't have been taken. She would remain that small bit of sunshine in this ugly world. It was all his fault, the consequences of his actions did that to this girl so dear to his heart.
She was the one to take a step forward, to wrap her arms around his middle – just like she did in her prison cell once – and rest her head on his chest in a way as though she wanted to listen to his heartbeat. Daryl only hesitated for a second before returning the hug and pressing his lips to the light and fuzzy hair on the crown of her head. He inhaled her smell and almost felt light-headed because that didn't change at all. It was still his Beth.
"I missed you," she suddenly said, in a whisper so soft that no one but him could've heard it.
Daryl wasn't astounded because if she didn't say that, probably would have, but he still didn't respond anything to that, simply kissed her head again, hugging her more tightly to his chest and thinking that he would rather die than lose her once again. He'd never gotten over the loss of her – not really – but going through that again… He was sure, that he wouldn't survive.
Her so-called "return" to the family (as Maggie put it) was something out of ordinary, although, living in a post-apocalyptic world, Daryl had long before learned not to be surprised by anything.
They found her hiding in the trees right after their massacre of Negan's people in the observatory. Rather, she found them. Held a gun to Jesus's head, and didn't let him go until everyone ran towards them and gathered around, circling her. At first, it didn't seem like she believed who she was seeing either. Her face was completely blank, only her brows knitting slightly, as she slowly lowered her gun and held it there, without putting it back into the holster.
Her hair was a lot longer now, and it was pulled up in a ponytail that she always preferred. The only difference was that the little braid was gone, and that stood out to Daryl right away and made his heart ache because she wasn't that young and sweet girl that looked for meaning in everything anymore. She'd changed. That tiny, but crucial part of her had gotten lost somewhere on the way.
Out of Negan's crew, Beth was the only one who survived the massacre (having been away before it started and returning to witness everyone already dead), and she didn't even protest when Maggie almost dragged her to the trailer they left on the road to take her back to Alexandria with them.
The ride back was quiet, only Maggie and Glenn softly talking to Beth, asking her questions about things she obviously didn't want to discuss. But Beth responded, hesitantly and with a look of struggle on her face, but she talked to her sister and told her what Maggie wanted to know. Daryl didn't listen. He sat across the trailer and couldn't take his eyes off her. It seemed as though if he turned his gaze away even for a second, she would disappear, and he would wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Again. Maggie kept talking to Beth, telling her how they came across Alexandria and promising how much she would love it, and Daryl kept wondering how no one could see it. How much Beth had changed.
He knew how this new world could be, what it did to people, especially those as kind and warmhearted as Beth. She must've gone through a lot in the time they had been apart and something had happened to her – something that had caused that little fire burning inside her to fade. All he could hope for now was that it wasn't gone completely. That maybe, she could still be better. Seeing Beth like this was too much for him to handle, so he tried to look away, but found himself unable to do that.
The scars added roughness to her features, but failed to make her face any less beautiful. Beauty always comes from within, his mama used to say when she wasn't too drunk to pay attention to him, and Daryl thought that it fit Beth perfectly. And when she met his gaze and gave him a small smile – smiling for the first time since they'd found her – Daryl breathed in sharply with a realization that his feelings (the feelings he tried so hard to ignore back at the funeral home, and was also too scared to admit or let her know of) haven't changed. To Daryl, Beth Greene was still the most important person in the world, even after all these months of her absence from his life.
Now he just hoped he'd be able to tell her that one day.
With Deanna gone, no one held interviews anymore, so Beth enrolled in Alexandria's community without any issue. And just observing her getting accustomed to the system, Daryl felt his heart ache for her – for how much she'd changed. She was different. Quiet. Never asked questions – something that he used to think impossible – or expressed concerns. She refused the job of school teacher that Maggie was trying so hard to force upon her, and just took up some shifts on watch. She spent a lot of time in the gazebo, writing something down, but whenever someone showed up, she would leave.
They didn't really talk. Daryl kept meaning to, but there was always someone in need of his help, or Beth was occupied with a guard duty or talking to Maggie. Every evening, she would just disappear in her room before dinner, never spending time with the whole group.
That evening was an exception. Maggie and Glenn convinced her to have a meal with everyone, and Beth conceded. She sat on the living room floor while others talked, and only answered Maggie's questions. Daryl noticed that she didn't seem to speak with anyone but Maggie and Glenn, despite the fact that it was obviously difficult for her to communicate with either of them. When she finished eating, she got up and went outside, everyone turning around to look at the door as she closed it behind her. No one concentrated on her disappearance for too long, and soon the quiet buzz of conversations filled the room again.
Daryl found her in that same gazebo, she was sitting on the bench, hugging her knees to her chest, but as soon as she saw him approach, she put her feet down and sat up straight. She always had her gun and her knife (that Daryl returned), and she wrapped herself into her cardigan. Daryl lowered himself onto the bench right next to her and fumbled for the pack of cigarettes in his jean pocket.
"You care?" he asked shortly, nodding towards the pack in his hand.
"No," she said softly and gave him a small smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. But at least she didn't leave when he showed up. Just that gave his hope a boost.
They sat in silence for a while, and Daryl was exhaling smoke from time to time and listening to the crickets chirping around them and Beth's soft, deep breathing. As minutes passed, she relaxed and leaned against the bench more and folded her arms; not in a defensive gesture, instead, it seemed like she didn't quite know what to do with her hands.
"How's everything with Maggie?" Daryl found himself asking, even though he didn't plan on speaking just yet.
Beth met his gaze and held it, and Daryl was once more reminded of that kitchen conversation. Just the thought sent shivers down his spine.
"It's alright," she shrugged slightly. "She's still the same, a little too pushy."
"Yeah," Daryl trailed off.
"I'm happy she's going to have a baby soon," she continued without Daryl asking any more questions. "She and Glenn deserve to have a family." She paused, looking away. "I remember the way she used to be before the turn. So… happy and cheerful and always busy doing something. Always got into trouble at school," Beth bit her bottom lip and turned to look at Daryl, as if making sure that he was listening. Of course he was, he was basking in the moment, not missing a single word, happy to have her talking again. She used to do that a lot. She would tell a short story about a moment she remembered from her past, and she had never expected anything in return, merely sharing her thoughts. She didn't expect that now, either. "I remember her senior prom. I was a freshman, but I went anyway, Jimmy invited me. Maggie and I danced so much I woke up with sore muscles the next morning."
"Was it fun?" Daryl couldn't help but ask.
"Yeah. It was great. Maggie's boyfriend at the time brought her a huge bouquet of red roses," she gestured to show just how big the bouquet was. "He had no idea that Maggie actually loved peonies, not roses. Always said they were too classy."
They both fell silent for a while, and Daryl smirked slightly at the thought of Beth and Maggie discussing things like that. Maggie complaining about her boyfriend not knowing her favourite flowers. Glenn actually seemed like the kind of guy who'd remember every little thing Maggie ever told him. Daryl wondered what Beth's favourite flower was. He knew it was stupid and that after the turn no one even had time for that kind of stuff, but the question flew off his lips before he could stop himself.
"My favourite flower?" Beth repeated, astounded, but didn't say anything about his interest in the matter. She frowned and looked down, as if she needed to think hard to remember that detail. And maybe she did. Then a soft smile spread across her lips. "I always liked daisies. You know, they're quite simple and not necessarily sophisticated, but there's something so… beautiful about them."
She looked at him as she was finishing her sentence, and Daryl's heart almost stopped at the look on her face. A look that reminded him of the one she had when she realized what he meant in that kitchen, when their lives were suddenly brightened with the prospect of something unfamiliar, but new and exciting. Only for it to be ruthlessly yanked away, crushing that little glimmer of faith in his heart that Beth Greene had managed to spark.
"How have you been since Grady?" she suddenly asked, almost startling him.
"Been alright," he shrugged, not wanting to elaborate on the subject.
"Maggie said you've been detached from everyone," Beth said, peering into his eyes as he unsuccessfully tried to avert his gaze. "I knew you'd miss me," she finished, and Daryl lifted his head to meet her gaze.
She was smiling, and this smile was real, shining all the way through her eyes. Daryl suddenly felt self-conscious. She knew how much effect she had on him – or, rather, her absence – and for a second that made Daryl feel trapped. Like he was an open book to her – something he was always terrified of. But since the recognition of their bond made her happy, made her smile… that changed everything.
"You have no idea, Greene," he smirked in response, shaking his head slightly.