He couldn’t breathe.
‘Least not in a way that’s doin’ a damn bit a’ good.
The walls to each side of him pressed in and the light that made the journey down to the floor fought against the Twilight Zone gloom the hallway held, struggling but nearly failing to reach its destination.
In the same desperate way he did to breathe.
Daryl’s hands gripped and loosened rhythmically, his heart beating like a crack head against a drug den’s door, skin all tight and uncomfortable as hell. Every muscle in him felt tripwire tight, eyes running over every detail in front of him.
He wanted nothing more than to never see the inside of this building for the rest of his life, no matter how long or short that may end up being. In fact, every single thing in him was screaming to get the hell up outta this freaky ass place, but the damn blonde he came for was keeping his boots firmly placed on the beaten linoleum floor.
You’d think being tracked down by your family and straight up Hollywood style rescued would have the girl tripping down the hallway in order to get back to them quick as possible. You’d also think that after getting there said girl would have the sense enough to stay put.
You’d be wrong.
Family surrounding and tense ass standoff notwithstanding the girl was getting caught up on some scrawny ass guy that had not too long ago left Daryl for bait…and taken his god damn crossbow to add insult to injury.
So he wasn’t real happy. Not a bit.
Hell, she’d barely made eye contact with him at all. Not that this was exactly the time for hugs and shit. But Daryl knew he’d be lying if he said the fact that she seemed more tore up about this dude than she did happy to see him didn’t bother him something awful.
He tried his best to drop the feeling, even if he couldn’t for the life of him understand why the man was so important to her.
Beth seemed attached for some reason or other, and while Daryl was sure there were a whole lot of things that had happened between the two of them that he hadn’t gotten to see, he was just as sure that at the end of the day he really didn’t give a shit.
If it meant the gangly youth or Beth, it was a sure bet which one Daryl would pick.
He’d been sure, sitting in that crossroads sick down to the soul, that he’d never lay eyes or ears on that blonde hair and blue eyes, or hear that soft voice chiding him for whatever dumbass thing he’d done, singing as night set in, firelight playing against skin so pale it held a glow the fire would envy.
His fingers twitched, the memory of sliding them along her back not moments ago making the agitation claw up his throat till he thought he’d suffocate.
The ringleader cop with the dead eyes said something to the guy, Noah, that Beth was holding onto and Daryl felt his body move forward slightly as the quiet around them held its breath. His back had gone all pins and needles like it did when he was out hunting, the kill was about to take place, that quiet moment between exhale and death.
He sidestepped Rick’s outstretched hand and noticed the cops at the end of the hall uncertainly raising their guns a bit, as if trying to remember if there was anyone in the middle of the two groups they actually cared died or not.
Daryl didn’t have that fuckin’ problem and he didn’t like the way Dawn’s hand rested on her holstered weapon, it being unclipped and ready.
Her and Beth were inches apart and the two women seemed unaware of anyone around them, even as he came within arm’s reach of his quarry. He was in time to hear Beth’s quiet words, her flat tone and rigid frame sent chills skittering down the back of his uncovered arms.
“I get it now.”
There was a quick movement, from his place he couldn’t see what or who, his eyes had been flicked down towards that gun on Dawn’s hip and when the fingers on it began to flex he reacted instinctively.
Snapping his hand forward, he clutched at anything he could reach before yanking it back.
His palm was full of sun damaged golden hair and scratchy threadbare sweater as his arm reeled it back, Daryl gritted his teeth at the crack of the shot, while still pulling his catch as far away from the sound as leverage allowed. He barely noticed plaster falling in his eyes or Dawn’s startled expression as his free hand made a half clumsy grab for the gun she still had pointed towards the ceiling.
He didn’t need to take it from her, not with what he had in mind, and using her steady grip he snaked his index finger into place next to hers, shoving the gun as far back into her chest as he could while pressing against her finger and the trigger.
He watched just long enough to see red spring from the crown of Dawn’s head before spinning around, jerking the body he still held, the one that had just barely reached the end of its spin, into his chest, and tucking it into his own frame, dropped into a crouch.
He curled around Beth until the only thing those bastard cops behind him could see was a crossbow over dirty wings.
Daryl knew there was a bunch of movement going on around him and he could half hear the voice that rang out telling everyone to hold their fire. But his main focus was the bundle of limbs tucked firmly against his chest.
The head, covered in fluffy strands that spiraled up into his view, was lodged into his throat near choking him to death. She was still skinny as hell and lanky like a Coonhound pup, he’d never been so happy to have a bony elbow crammed into his gut, sharp knees and shins digging at the inside of his thigh.
“Gonna be pissed at ya if yer dead girl.”
His voice was half hoarse from the strain on his neck and the thickness of his accent that near muddled the words passed recognition.
There was a chance that he hadn’t been quick enough, that he might’ve just been within spitting distance to Beth as she died. That any moment he’d realize it was her dead body he was clutching to him, or that he’d be holding her as the last breath left her.
Daryl was rattled to the point his lungs had stopped moving and he realized his vision was beginning to spot.
As he got his own breathing under control, and the caterwauling in his head died down he heard a slight sound from somewhere under his chin.
And just that quick he was back in a kitchen full of candles and good food with the biggest bluest eyes he’d ever seen staring back at him. Everything in him praying he hadn’t said the wrong thing, more like hadn’t said anything at all. And he was waiting for those eyes to stop looking at him with all that wonder and curiosity and turn cold, or worse, frightened when they saw him.
He was brought back by the big shuddering breath that escaped his chest, it came whooshing out his mouth, ruffling the strands of her hair clinging to the whiskers of his face. Her voice had been muffled and he quickly uncurled his spine to give her room enough to breathe let alone say anything.
“Wha’ was that?” He asked, more wanting to hear her speak than what she was going to say.
“Ow.” She repeated, voice pain tinged as she leaned into his retreating form.
“You ok Beth?”
Daryl looked up as Rick came to squat next to them, one hand going towards where her face must be, all Daryl could see was clean blonde hair. The man’s other hand was still firmly holding his gun but the immediate danger seemed to have passed.
“I’m ok,” she puffed out, but her hands clamped hard onto Daryl’s forearm, knuckles turning white against his tanned skin as she teetered, hampered in her hold by the blocky cast covering one arm, “jus’ twisted my ankle or somethin’ on the way down.”
Daryl felt a small amount of heat creep up his neck at the same time that the semitrailer decided to move off his chest, he obviously hadn’t meant to hurt her, just wanted to save her, but being himself he’d managed it somehow. He explained away the tightening of his hold as a need to keep her upright, no way in hell did it have anything to do with his heart slamming against his sternum.
She either needed or didn’t mind the added support, still leaning into him, hands still clenching hard, nails digging into the flesh below them. She could be drawing blood, he wouldn’t care, Beth was alive and holding onto him.
Damaged wasn’t dead.
“S’rry.” He muttered regardless, still feeling like an ass for causing her any kind of hurt, but his voice got swallowed up by Noah’s as the boy came around to get a view of Beth for himself.
“Beth are you crazy? You shouldn’t have done that. Not for me.”
Daryl craned his neck back over his shoulder, twisting his torso a bit, ignoring the complaint that came from his lower back, and took a gander at Dawn, trying to figure out exactly what it was the bat-shit crazy woman in his arms had actually done.
Protruding from Dawn’s shoulder were a pair of the smallest most underwhelming scissors he’d ever seen. They were ridiculous and so small, Beth had probably had them hiding in the cast on her arm, and how she’d thought they’d do her a damn bit of good he wasn’t sure.
They were an insult to all respectable scissors ever created.
And the sight of them made his blood go hot like welding dregs, his jaws clench tight, and his next breath shot out his nose making more noise than he’d intended.
Without much thought he turned back around and giving no warning scooped Beth up in his arms, rising through the ache in his back, ignoring the small hiss of pain that came from the weight he carried.
Rick and Noah leapt back and Daryl leveled a look at the younger man that caused him to take a further step away, bumping into the wall.
“Damn righ’ she shouldn’a.” He rasped out in reply, his vocal cords constricting with the anger he felt running wild in his veins.
She made a small sound of disapproval at him as he began walking through the hallway, but she didn’t say anything and neither did he, not trusting what might fly out of his mouth at the moment. He heard Rick behind him, offering any of those willing a safe passage with their group, but Daryl didn’t much care if anyone took him up on it or not.
He’d gotten who he’d come for.
Tyreese, Sasha, and Carol fell in behind him but he didn’t look anywhere but forward, getting out of this goddamn freak show couldn’t come fast enough. Quick and measured footsteps he’d heard hundreds of times came up behind him and Rick was passing them to get the door open to the stairway.
Christ he couldn’t wait to get out of here.
As they approached the steps he felt Beth shift, bringing up an arm to throw around his shoulders, trying to even out some of the weight for the trip down the stairs. Daryl jerked his head backwards, blocking her movement. Without looking at the questioning gaze he knew was aimed at him, he started down the steps, grumbling an answer to the stairwell in general.
“Gotcha jus’ fine.”
Truth was, he couldn’t stand the thought of her being any closer to him than she already was. And not just her too light body in his arms, but the her that had slinked up under his skin like the tattoo mapping his back.
Or the scars crisscrossing his spine and shoulders.
The marks he hadn’t asked for, half the time hadn’t seen coming, the ones that branded him and made him shy away at their memory, the ones that testified to his weakness and breaking.
Yeah, Beth was a scar.
But she went deeper than anything his sonofabitch old man had ever given him. She twined around his muscles, twitching them like strings, she’d found pathways through bone and slithered along organs making them labored and unruly.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, he grumbled to himself as they descended another flight of stairs his arms aching and his back beginning a silent scream of one no longer in its prime, now on top of all that it had been brought to his attention that this damn girl didn’t even wanna stay alive.
That was the only answer he could think of while casting his mind back to those tiny silver handles sticking out harmlessly from Dawn’s shoulder.
He’d seen Beth. Watched as everything in her life was ripped away right in front of her, he’d ran with her for miles, her slim frame clearing fallen logs and high grass like a deer being hunted. She’d taken out walkers twice her size and while she wasn’t the strongest fighter she wasn’t dumb either.
It was like watching her open her own veins back at the farm and for the first time Daryl understood the fear and rage that Maggie must have felt. He was terrified for her, his breath hitching a little on the last set of stairs, he was pissed off as fuck at her too.
What the hell was she thinking? Getting all wrapped around him like that.
Only to be one more person he’d lose.
One more person he’d bury.
He’d be tearing off muscle and breaking bone to put her to rest, pulling her piece by piece from tissue and capillaries, never quite getting all of her.
Whole trip down the steps she’d stayed quiet, he could feel her breathing kind of hard against his own labored breaths, but she never said anything and it was too dark in the stairwell to make out much more than the two small porcelain fists clenched tight against her stomach, cast peeking out from one sleeve.
His lungs felt like they were collapsing in his chest when he made it through the door that Rick held open for him, part of that was from his carefully maintained habit the other part was from the emotions he wasn’t willing to track too closely.
They had reached the base of the stairs. The lobby was the only thing left before they’d hit the outside. He was motioned to stay put as the rest of the party filed out from the stairwell.
“I want you two behind us.” Rick clarified when given a scowl. “We cleared most the walkers on our way in but no need to be takin’ chances now.”
Daryl snorted, shifting the quiet load in his arms slightly, but nodded his acceptance at the good, albeit sparse and late, use of logic from someone in their group. As he took up his position at the back of the party he felt her head rest heavily on his chest, and wondered if she felt his heartbeat, the way it was pounding like a freight train.
“Daryl.” She said quietly and at the sound of her voice his eyes shut a few moments longer than they needed to before he was humming in response. “Thank you.” She said simply, and his eyes opened as the rest of the group began to exit out the doors in front of him. “For savin’ me.” She continued when he didn’t reply, seeming as always to have a need to fill his silence. “Didn’ think anyone would be able to find me here.”
And with that she rubbed her cheek against his vest, for all the world looking like she’d found a good place to rest, her next inhale came in deep through her nose and Daryl couldn’t tell if she was breathing him in, or only taking a breath of relief at not being trapped here anymore.
Looking up at him, cheek still in place, she flashed a smile that went nowhere near those baby blues of hers. Daryl glanced down in time, before she dropped her head, to note the emptiness of her gaze, like a prism with no light.
“Guess I should’a known, there’s nothin’ you can’t track.”
Her voice, like her eyes, sounded hollow and there was none of the melody in her flat tone that sounded anything like the Beth he’d had with him before.
He had to swallow a couple of times before being able to grunt a noncommittal acknowledgement.
Then for some reason he felt like he had to add a grumbled, “Ya’d have got yerself out.”
But all he could really think was that he was holding a ghost in his arms as he passed through the doorway into the sun filled day.
Each step into daylight had him locking away anything that felt even a little bit weak, but the trip down the stairs and a shit ton of adrenaline was making him feel unsteady. He kept getting flashes of blood spraying out of Dawn’s head and he couldn’t stop seeing it as Beth’s.
His throat tightened till his eyes watered and he was about to tell her he was going to have to set her down when he saw they had company. With some crazy turn of events the rest of the group had come, those walking in front of him split to either side without saying anything, knowing that Maggie would be wanting to see her sister.
Daryl couldn’t understand it at first. The way Glenn looked crestfallen, why Maggie was dropping her gun and then falling to the ground with a cry like her heart was tearing to pieces. He stood stock still, and looking down, quickly jostled Beth, feeling the instant her head popped up from his chest, the cold spot she left almost aching despite the heat of the day.
“Maggie?” She breathed, and Daryl was standing her up as careful as he could when he was nearly bowled over by the oldest Greene sister.
In the entangling limbs he somehow found himself trapped, his whole body stiffening as they crowded around him. Beth was trying to balance on one leg and Maggie seemed out of her head with relief.
Next thing he knew there were two more bodies being added to the hug. Glenn and Rick – for fuck sakes – came over and added to one of the more uncomfortable moments in his life. He was still firmly placed in the center of the group.
Both women had an arm slung around his back and he’d tried to stubbornly stay in place, until his elbows and the sides of his arms kept knocking into things they shouldn’t, and he’d had to grudgingly lay an arm on each one of their shoulders.
They were crying and the men of their original group were talking quietly but all Daryl could think on was how badly he wanted out.
He needed some quiet to roll around all the shit knocking along his skull. His eyes came up and he saw a grinning Michonne staring at him and after a few moments of his narrowed look having no effect he raised a hand to flip her off before sighing and carefully extricating himself from the maze of limbs.
Unfortunately since he was the center of their wheel everyone took it as a cue to break apart and instead of being able to sidle away from all the commotion and touching he found himself pinned by Maggie’s gaze as she talked to Beth, an arm still holding tight around her sister’s back.
“I thought you were-“ Maggie’s mouth made a couple attempts to work before deciding it was easier to skip it and move onto whatever had her giving Daryl that look. “Daryl jus’ looked so upset and you weren’t movin’?”
Daryl felt his eyes immediately skim away from the blues that looked his way and ran the side of his hand along his upper lip to hide the way the corners of his mouth were still pulling down towards his boots.
“It’s my fault.” Beth said evenly, and Daryl couldn’t control how his eyes snapped up to hers, her blue so deep he felt like drowning as she kept going without looking away. “Got a lil’ over-confident up there and Daryl had to keep me from gettin’ shot.”
She talked so matter-of-factly, her voice was still without any kind of inflection, she may as well of been giving directions. He saw from the corner of his eye as Maggie’s arm seemed to spasm, pulling her little sister a bit closer in, heard the way she whispered her name but Beth’s attention was still on him.
It was the first time they’d properly looked at one another since the funeral home and he felt like he was burning a bit, like the edges of his skin were too close to campfire, and while he’d been able to catch his breath since their trip down the stairs, it by no means felt as steady as it should.
He took in the stitches along her cheek and forehead without actually focusing on them. Hopefully the person responsible for those future scars was already dead, because he doubted Rick would let him go back inside to take care of the sonofabitch at this point.
He also didn’t miss the fact that the glow he’d witnessed daily for over a year had died, and something otherworldly had taken residence. Not so much a glow as an almost unearthly luminescence that set his teeth on edge.
The eyes meeting his own were happy but hard, and they reminded him too damn much of the set that looked back at him when he was unlucky enough to come across a reflective surface.
And even though he was almost grateful enough to pray, that she was standing here alive, he couldn’t stop the weight that seemed to eddy about in his chest until laying itself heavy in his gut.
Where’d his light go?
He felt like a selfish ass as soon as the thought swirled into his head. It was his damn fault she was standing here like some kind of phantom. God only knew what she’d been through in that shithole…but Beth was talking again, he shook his head a bit to dislodge the noise in his brain, trying to catch up with what she was saying.
“Had to take out their leader,” she said nodding to him to show who’d done it, “but we’re out now, an’ we’re all safe.” She finished, an uncertain smile pulling at her mouth, but it fell away as she continued to look at him. Something in his face making her features go still.
He shrugged a bit when he could feel all the eyes of the group settle on him.
“Weren’t nothin’.” He mumbled, ignoring the way her brows twitched down a little at his words and tone. “Got the idea I’s doin’ tha’ cops in there a favor, way they jus’ let us walk out like that.” He continued, trying lamely to clarify, her expression didn’t change though, and when he was finally able to drag his eyes away from her he saw similar furrowed brows aimed in his direction.
Well fuck, what’d they expect?
He rolled his tongue around his mouth a bit, his eyes looking everywhere but anyone else’s and moved his shoulders trying to work the itch out.
He’d tracked this girl nearly through both hell and high water.
And now that she was in front of him he was acting like some crotchety ass old man, irritated at having to be here at all. Like he didn’t give a damn that she’d almost died. Like he wouldn’t have been fuckin’ obliterated if she had.
Making his way around the group, he heard as they all began following him to the waiting firetruck, Beth’s pace slow as she made careful hops behind him. Maggie was doing introductions and Daryl was just glad that the attention was off him. Nearing the vehicle he slung the bow over his head, ignoring the too tight way he was gripping the strap.
Pulling himself up into the confines of the firetruck he stooped and walked back till he could arrange him and the crossbow into one of the seats.
His eyes were fixed out the window figuring everyone else would get settled, not even noticing that there wasn’t nearly the room for them all to fit, he flinched when he felt fingers trail along his forearm.
Beth sat on the seat next to him, her hand charring his skin and her look hooking him in place.
“Everythin’ ok?” She asked, her voice hushed and she leaned closer to him, so the others couldn’t hear. There was a stillness about her, not peaceful exactly but more of a waiting, that tense spot before the attack that made the sternum hurt and the fibers in each muscle tingle.
And while he didn’t doubt her concern, it was like she was sending it through about five layers of glass. It was there, but with it was a whole bunch of…something. Walls, or she was watching him from a long ways off and wasn’t really right next to him. It was like she wasn’t sitting there and touching him at all.
They’d been close like this before, back when things were looking not as shitty as he’d originally thought they were going to end up being. She’d held his hand, he hadn’t even tried to pull away, hadn’t felt that tensing like he was getting ready to be hit. And he couldn’t grasp as to why, but that was gone now. Instead of being reassured that she wasn’t an exception to his body’s no touching rule, Daryl felt…he wasn’t sure what, but it wasn’t reassured and it should have been.
So then he just felt panic.
There was a conversation going on amongst the group outside about seating and possible solutions and most everybody was still outside the truck except Abraham who had taken the driver’s seat.
He bit at the side of his tongue to keep from snapping at her, or jerking away from the touch that was sending pulses of heat through his rigid frame, each of his muscles twitching like mad till he thought he might wriggle right out of his skin.
What the fuck was wrong with him?
He was only able to give her a quick nod, before awkwardly getting to his feet and after mumbling about making room for someone who needed it more, he maneuvered passed her with his bow in hand.
Their number had been steadily growing, and after a few minutes more discussion a couple of cars were found with a decent amount of fuel intact and they split into carloads. A few of them ended up riding on the back of the truck and Daryl made sure he was one of those few. He needed to get his shit straight and sitting cheek to jowl with Beth Greene wasn’t gonna help.
Time was he’d have channeled all this garbage clogging up his head into anger, a knee jerk reaction, and he would’ve aimed it at her and let loose, didn’t matter if it were her fault or not. Better actually if it weren’t, he’d have a higher chance that she’d get pushed further away and he wouldn’t have to deal with it. He needed to sift through everything and try to pin point what the hell was making him so goddamn mad.
He was pissed at himself for telling her to run to the road back at the funeral home, first thing, that was a given.
Just like minutes ago in the hospital, twisting her ankle, he’d meant at the time to get her out of harm’s way, the thought of her getting bit right in front of him sending a panic through his bones that he hadn’t experienced in a long time…maybe ever. But he’d managed to set her up for being taken instead.
Part of him knew that right now, her having a sprained ankle was a sight better than a bullet through the brain, but that part of him was small, and mostly he just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of her being gone.
What kind of universe was cruel enough to have him find her, only to watch her get her fuckin’ brains blown out right in front of him? Daryl had survived some nasty ass shit in his life but even he struggled with the chances of that series of events actually happening. It was too fucked up to even comprehend that kind of shit.
When he’d been sitting on that road talking to Rick right after she’d got taken. He’d only been able to say she was gone , when chances had been high then that she’d been dead, probably before they made her wish that she was.
That thought snagged at him, and he wished he had stayed with her to ask. Sliding passed the fact that he probably wouldn’t have been able to get the words out in order to find out...He looked back at the hospital as it began to disappear behind the surrounding buildings and wondered if this was the last he’d see of it, or if he’d be darkening some fucker’s doorway in the not too distant future, knife in hand.
All this and he still couldn’t drop the feeling of being boiling pissed at her too. None of the shit leading up to it was her fault, that he knew, but he hadn’t spent time showing her how to kill things for no goddamn reason.
His grip tightened on the bar he was holding to keep his footing on the back of the truck, feeling the tendons shift and grind against the bones.
She’d yelled at him at the top of her lungs next to that shack in the woods. All about how she weren’t no dead girl and how she’d made it.
His mind pulled up sharp without thinking about the rest of what she’d said later that night. Sitting on that filthy porch, moon making that glow of hers go all fairy lights and pearl.
Daryl shook his head a little and snorted, Merle would have keeled over laughing until he cried if he could hear the shit passing through Daryl’s mind.
And after all that, all their fighting, and talking, all their arson…training, and piggybacks, and singing, and jokes, and eating by candlelight.
After he’d told her…whatever the fuck that he’d been trying to say.
He just couldn’t quite get over what his gut was telling him.
That Beth Greene had got to the point, being in that hospital, where she didn’t care anymore if she made it out or not. Long as she caused some pain to those that’d done the same to her along the way.
The girl that had muttered at him about his lack of faith after seeing her own daddy murdered right in front of her, had risked her own life and maybe the lives of those he knew she loved, just in order to lash out at that dead-eyed bitch.
And maybe that was her business and he was being a little crazy himself. But for the life of him all Daryl Dixon wanted to do was shake that girl riding in the truck until the one he had with him at the shack broke through and told him to cut his bullshit. He wanted to watch as that pure life of hers did a hell of a job backing her blues in flames that promised him a good scorching if he kept it up.
Maybe she’d never be like that again, and he’d have to adjust to this new Beth…
But then again, hell.
He fuckin’ hated change.