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Of Bonfires and Reflection

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            He doesn’t know how old she is.

            Hell, he doesn’t know how old he is anymore. He was 37 when the world ended, so he supposes he must be in his 40s now. Some of them have kept count, Carol presented Maggie with an unopened jar of Nutella on what was close enough to the day she turned 24. It’s no birthday cake, but it’s better than the canned beans they’d been living off of. No one was even sure what the date was anymore, so they all settled for close enough.

            He barely cared about his age before everything went to hell in a handbasket, so he just sort of stopped counting. Soon he’ll be older than Merle ever was, if he isn’t already. Daryl isn’t sure he’s ready for that. Sure, Merle was a racist junkie asshole, but family is family. 

            But anyway, he doesn’t know how old she is. God, she was in high school when the world ended. She would be, what, 18? 19? He feels himself physical recoil slightly at the thought of that.

            He’s always known he was a worthless piece of shit, but this is fucked up even by his own standards. She probably just sees him as an older brother, and she could certainly use some family. Given that, you know, everyone either of them knows is dead. And even if they aren’t, it’s not like they’ll ever see any of them again.

            Daryl has always known he’s full of shit; as much as he tells himself he doesn’t care, he knows he does. Rick, more his brother than Merle ever was. Michonne, she must’ve gone down swinging. Carl, he always hoped Carl would be the last one of them left standing. Carl, who he’s watched become a man. Judith, who sometimes felt like she was everyone’s daughter, the very definition of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Carol, his unlikeliest of friends. Maggie, bossy but tough as they come. Glenn, the closest he has to an old friend now. Sasha and Tyreese. Herschel. Those kids. How many of the others has he already forgotten?

            God, he misses them all so much. But if he lets himself think about that, it’ll eat him alive. He’s more afraid of grief’s teeth than any of the walkers. After all, you can’t shoot an arrow through grief’s skull. So he grabs Beth around the wrist and tugs her into the woods, the flames of the moonshiner’s shed casting eerie shadows through the trees.

            He can feel the haze of the moonshine clouding his thoughts, turning down the volume of the unpleasant memories that float just beneath the surface. She’s still grinning as they trek through the woods and he thinks maybe he’s smiling too. It feels alien, unfamiliar on his face. He can’t remember the last time he was happy.

            He hadn’t done well in school, but even he can’t miss the symbolism of burning down a place that’s so starkly similar to his childhood home.

            In a screwed up way, this life is easier for him than it ever was before the world ended. He was just some dumb redneck who’d never been out of Georgia, all he did was sit around with Merle and his buddies and get fucked up on whatever someone thrust into his hands.

            Now there are people who depend on him. Beth is depending on him. He’s never been needed before, has always been replaceable. How fucked up is it that it took the world ending for Daryl Dixon to find a reason to stay alive.

            Later, when they find a clearing in the forest and light a fire, he strips off his vest to dry some of the sweat off of it. Maybe he’s still a little drunk, or maybe he’s just gotten too comfortable around her, or maybe he’s as dumb as Merle always said he was, but for an instant he forgets about the lattice of scars that covers his back.

            He turns and leans over to get something out of his bag and hears Beth’s faint gasp. Stupid stupid stupid, he berates himself. She didn’t need to see that. The world is ugly, but he still wants to shield her from as much of it as he can. 

            “What happened?” she asks in her delicate little bird voice and he sits down heavily on the ground next to her and tries to very quickly take stock of his entire life.

            “M’ dad,” he grunts out, hoping that she won’t pry, but knowing that she will. She cares too much, even for him. He could live to be a hundred years old, not that that’s likely, and he knows that he’ll never deserve a single ounce of her kindness.

            She raises one of her small hands slowly, as if he’s a wild animal that she doesn’t want to spook, and traces lightly over the scar that runs from his left shoulder all the way across his back. He wants to flinch away, he knows he should, but god it’s been so long since anyone touched him.

            “Oh, Daryl,” she says, concern filling her voice.

            “It was a long time ago,” he says, hoping that she’ll change the subject. 

            “You didn’t deserve this,” she tells him and his heart twists a little. He wonders how she can do that, just assume she knows what he does or doesn’t deserve. He knows this much though: he doesn’t deserve her sympathy. If she understood what kind of person he was before, she would have to agree with him there.

            He feels like a dirty old man, she’s practically still a child and he can’t stop thinking about how her hand feels on his back, how’d do anything for her to keep touching him. But he doesn’t even know how old she is, so he shrugs her hand off and pulls his vest back over his head, still tacky sweat sticking to his skin as he pulls it over his chest and takes a seat beside her. He can keep her safe, that much he can do for her.