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The End of Endless Change

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His hands are shaking so badly it takes her three tries to catch one between her fingers, nimble and delicate as sparrow feet.

“Daryl,” she says—whispers, against his lips, lips she'd been kissing until she registered the tremors running through him—and when she tries to find his eyes he's ducked them down, out of her sight behind a curtain of hair. She licks her lips to chase the taste of him and several strands catch on her tongue. “Daryl, we can stop. Don't... please. Please look at me.”

He doesn't give any indication that he's heard her. Doesn't move at all. He hardly seems to be breathing.

Biting her lip, Beth raises a hand to press into his hair. It's fluffier than usual; dry, but clean, smelling of the shampoo everyone in the house shares. It's odd on him, but nice; nice like the flutter in Beth's chest as she wonders if he did it for her, if he knew hours ago that he'd come by her bedroom—not for this, though, certainly not for this—and wanted to be different. To be clean.

She drifts her fingers across the strands for a moment, like the strings of a harp, before sliding through and pushing them aside. His eyes are lowered so far that at first she thinks they're closed.

“Don't do this,” she says, and then unthinkingly, cruelly, “Don't leave me.”

He flinches, almost pulls his hand from hers with the force of it, but she doesn't let go; tightens her grip and pulls him to her knee, holds him there like it's something to ground him.

Beth swallows, keeps his hair pushed back, lets him know without saying that she'll take his gaze the moment he gives it to her. Take anything of his at all.

“That was nice,” she says, speaking to speak, to fill enough of the silence that he'll be able to walk back to her across it. “What we did, it's... it was sweet of you to ask but I wouldn't have minded if you didn't. And I'd like to do it some more but it's... it's ok if you don't. If you changed your mind. I wouldn't be mad, honest. I'm not mad at you for anything.” He jerks again, and her grip on his hand must be painful now. Her own wrist is cramping with the strain but if he can take it she will too. “You're the reason I'm here, you're the reason–“

“Beth.”

Every hair on her body stands on end when he speaks, his body bowing the smallest bit towards her, shaking hand on her knee vibrating through her bones.

“Beth, don't...” He makes a noise that could be a laugh or a sob and is probably both. “I ain't the reason. All I did–“

“It wasn't your fault–“

“What, a few weeks of tracking walkers in the woods, getting' you drunk off your ass... that's all I ever did for you.” His voice is harsh but so, so quiet, like he's talking to himself instead of her. “I left you in a fucking car trunk, didn't even... I felt you breathing, you were breathing on my face but I didn't even think–“

Daryl,” she says, voice breaking but not brittle. Her hand is doing more than holding his hair back; has wormed its way as deep as it can go, burrowing against his scalp, fingers digging in like they could work through his skull. The part of her looking down on the two of them knows it must hurt.

He's pressing into it, is the thing; he isn't looking at her but he's closer than he was before, his presence massive enough it could blot out the sun, and all she can think is finally.

“I could'a learned that stuff, how to survive, from anyone who knows how. That's not the reason.” Beth swallows, tips her face closer, lets him feel her breath on his face. “It's you. You showed me... you're the only one who's treated me like a whole person in my entire life. When it was just us...” A shiver runs through Daryl's body, coursing like quicksilver, and her hushed words hold him from vibrating apart. “I wasn't a sister or a daughter or a babysitter. I was me. Cause there was you. And you didn't ask me to be anyone else. And in... that place... I couldn't be any of that. I put too much away. I put you away cause it hurt too much being a person there without you.” Through his shaking Daryl's gone deathly still, breathing in short, rattling pants that don't seem to reach past his throat. Beth closes her eyes and she can't see him but he's the most there thing she's ever felt. “When I woke up the second time... I thought I was dead. I thought I was dead and God didn't exist cause if I was dead, death is just... a long dark emptiness, then getting up to walk and falling down again.”

Daryl snorts, so softly. “That's what living is too, most of the time.”

“Most of the time,” Beth whispers. Daryl's head tilts; not enough, just a little, but she tightens her fingers to make him know she felt it. “Cause this time when they came in and told me what happened they said you held me. Carried me out. And I almost remembered it.” Beth swallows. “I dunno if I was making it up, or thinking of the wrong thing, but if I closed my eyes tight enough I swear... my face was wet and I tasted blood but that's not what I smelled. I could only smell you. And that woke me up. Cause I imagined a whole life—even a short life—where I'd never smell that again and that felt more like dying than dying ever did.”

“Beth...”

“So I left,” Beth says. “I left, alone. Nothing in that place smelled like you. It didn't smell like anything, nothing real. But when I got to the woods it was like... like the first day of spring after a long winter. And I didn't want just a day. I wanted spring, all of it. And summer. So I kept walking. I didn't die and I kept walking and by the time I got here I was a person again. And I could be a sister and... and a friend, but I wanted...”

You and me, she wants to say. Not just me, not just you. You and me. Cause I never thought that wet on my face was blood. I thought it was you, that you were holding me and you were crying cause you thought there'd never be the two of us again. But there can be. There is. Even if I die again tomorrow, right now there is.

Beth knows it might be too soon, that he might not be ready for it; but as close as they are it isn't enough, will never be enough, and she presses her mouth to his again in a desperate attempt to breathe.

He doesn't kiss back, not as such, but she doesn't care; for just a moment he fills his lungs with the air from hers and his hands tighten where they've landed on her body and it's perfect. Not perfect like there's nothing wrong, not perfect like it couldn't be better—the better it could be makes her fingers flex in his hair, tugging on his scalp and pulling a helpless whimper from his throat—but perfect like the final notes of a song fading into the night. Perfect like the chords of the next one beginning to rise.

It's only a moment and she pulls back—feels jittery, desperate, wants to turn to liquid and melt through his pores to live beneath his skin, knit through with his muscle and bone—but he doesn't put distance between them. Seems just as wound up as she, thrumming like the air inside a guitar as it plays.

“I ain't a person like that, Beth,” he says, barely a whisper but she's close enough, close to him, close enough to hear. “Not anymore. Never was, 'cept... I almost was.” His hand sinks into her hair, thumbing the strands before burying his fingers, holding her skull like she clutches his. He tips his forehead against hers and she can't see it or feel it but she knows he's crying again. “I dunno if I wanna be. Cause getting so close and not... it damn near killed me. Worse.” He laughs, grating, harsh. “Damn, girl, what you did. What you did.”

“What did I do?” she murmurs, moving a hand from his hair to his cheek, relishing the pinpricks of his beard.

He swallows, heavy and thick and moving through his whole body. He pulls away but only enough that she can see his eyes and there, there are the tears making his irises glow like sapphire coals.

“You know,” he whispers.

Tears break across Beth's own face and the new, hoary corners of her hiss that she should feel like a sap, the two of them crying together in the dark; but she pushes the voices away. Pushes them away because they have no place here where she's warm and fed and full in his arms.

She opens her mouth to reply but closes it when his fingers touch her cheek, only drifting across her skin at first but then moving with purpose, thumb clearing the liquid beneath her eyes.

“Don't cry, sweetheart, please,” he says. He swallows, eyes flickering across her face. “Can't stand that. Never could.” A smile twitches at the edge of his mouth. “Every time you cried and I did nothing. Stood there like a fucking idiot. And I can't stop thinking shit like, if I'd done something, just once, maybe none'a that bad would'a happened. Don't know how, but...”

“Like a butterfly.”

“Like–“ Daryl closes his mouth, squints at her. “What?”

Beth feels her cheeks heat and she realizes how unbelievably warm she is. She didn't open the window before Daryl closed the door and with the two of them pressed still and so close the air in the room has settled in place, pricking at her pores like a wool blanket. But Daryl isn't moving away so she won't either.

“It's not important. Just something my mama used to say.”

“What?” he asks again. The word's softer somehow, like he wanted it soft.

Beth takes a breath, speaks her mother's words. “A butterfly beats its wings in New York and someone in Tokyo falls in love. I...” Beth trails off, laughs to herself. “For the longest time I never knew what the heck she was talking about either. But I think it's... it's a way to say everything's connected. Everyone. Something happens, and it's tiny and it doesn't matter at all, but it causes something else, and something else and something else and something else and then... then the whole world's different. Everything that means everything only happened cause of something that means nothing. And then that nothing means everything too. Even if no one knows it. Not even the butterfly.”

Daryl's eyes are large, standing out from his tanned face like reefs in the ocean and that's all that Beth can think because he doesn't ask this time. Presses his mouth to hers like he might have wanted to do before, wild and breathless and he isn't so much kissing her as holding her tight in every way he can.

And he is. Even if his fingers weren't grinding the bones of her knee or his shadow sitting long across the floor, she feels enveloped. Overwhelmed, like she used to be watching the dawn. She didn't think she could feel that way anymore.

It ends just as suddenly as it began, but it doesn't really end; he pulls back just far enough that he can drag air into his lungs, blow it out across her face in rapid pants that make her feel drunk. Make her feel just like that moonshine made her feel, loose and unburdened and sure. Sure of herself. Sure of anything. Everything.

Sure of him. Not lowering his head, not shaking or hiding. Staring at her like something momentous, like she'd spread her wings and someone in Tokyo...

...Oh.

Not in Tokyo. Not nearly that far at all.

 

Chuang Tzu in dream became a butterfly,
And the butterfly became Chuang Tzu at waking.
Which was the real—the butterfly or the man ?
Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?
The water that flows into the depth of the distant sea
Returns anon to the shallows of a transparent stream.
The man, raising melons outside the green gate of the city,
Was once the Prince of the East Hill.
So must rank and riches vanish.
You know it, still you toil and toil,—what for?

– Li Po, "Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly"