He’s gone beyond the capacity to feel anything. He simply exists because the only other option is too not. And he can’t do that. He won’t do that.
So when she comes in with a group that Aaron found he doesn’t notice her at first, purposely looks away from the flash of blonde just like he has thousands of other times after the thousands of time he did look, looked and never found her blue eyes, her smile, her infinite faith.
She was gone. Like the rest and he knew it was no use believing in anything good anymore.
Aaron ushers the group in through the gates, all the while explaining the rules in a way that makes most people want to follow them as if giving up their weapons sounds like a fine idea. They do hand them over, a couple of guns, an ax, two bowing knives. He sees the blonde hair again surrounded by the group. Looking away he shoulders his bow and nods at Aaron.
“Where they come from?” he asks the scout.
“Georgia. Atlanta.” The name is an echo and it rolls through him like a wave of nausea, bitter in the back of his throat.
“We were at a hospital there, Grady, you mighta-” An older man with glasses held together with silver tape, a backpack dangling from his arms wants to explain, plead his case, their case, this little ragtag group of survivors.
But the blonde hair has morphed into a ponytail. A ponytail with a little braid. And to his horror that blonde ponytail is moving, turning….
‘You see a blonde girl?’
The face he unconsciously searched for never imagining he’d ever find, because that face, that girl is dead.
So how is it that she's standing right in front of him staring at him with those big blue eyes.
‘What made you change your mind?’
“Daryl?” It’s like being kicked in the balls. A sharp, screaming pain that takes all the air from his lungs and makes him want to curl up around the part of him that aches, a dull thumping that matches the beat of his heart.
But that's not how leaders react to situations like this and that’s what they expect him to be now. A leader.
He’s not a leader, never was, never wanted to be. He’s nobody, nothing, a redneck asshole who’s lost, everyone.
“Daryl it’s Beth-” She looks a little scared, he can see her hand tremble as she brushes her hair back. Like maybe he’s forgotten her.
“I know it’s you girl.” Does he? Does he really, in fact, know it's her? It’s all he manages to vice but it’s not all he wants to say.
‘Do you think I could ever forget you? I carried you on my back, in my arms, in my fucking heart that broke and broke…’
And now it’s breaking again because this has to be some sick joke. He’s having a nightmare, a hallucination, he’s finally lost his goddamn mind.
He’ll wake up in a tangle of sweaty sheets and...
She’s alive and she’s closed the space between them and somehow managed to slip her arms inside his leather jacket and she’s holding on and her shoulders are shaking, she’s crying and he’s standing here like a complete fucking idiot because he can’t move, can’t even manage to pat her on the back, touch her hair. Something, anything. But he can’t.
The absolutely amazing thing is- she doesn’t seem to care at all. Or maybe she doesn’t notice. She eventually takes his hand and they walk and she must be leading even though he’s supposed to be the leader and they end up on the porch of the big house. Barrington Manor or mansion, some fancy name that no longer matters. It’s big and it’s a house.
She’s looking at him. She isn’t smiling. She’s just looking. So he lets himself look too.
She’s changed. But haven’t they all? Isn’t that what this world does to a person now? Takes you apart and puts you back together like a broken doll.
Her hair is clean, he noticed that because it's shining, even in the fading light. Her clothes too, they’re in fairly good shape as were the rest of her little groups. They’re worn and patched in places, but not covered in walker guts or blood from a gunshot wound he would have taken himself given the chance.
The scars, they line her face. Two small delicate lines that look they were drawn by a child with a pink marker. And one round raised spot on her forehead. His fingers instinctively search out the burn mark on his hand, round and raised almost but not quite the same. Shaking his head, bringing himself back he meets her eyes.
“This is where you’re all at?” Tentative and hopeful?
All. No. Not all.
Rubbing his face and letting himself just feel it like Carol says he should, he shakes his head. He’s gonna have to tell her. Before they can go any further. It can’t be any other way.
‘Well go on boy! Spit it out’
Not everybody made it Beth. All the people you loved… He doesn’t have nice words to use and it’s not like this he can break it to her gently. Not this. She survived, she made it. And everyone else... But she’s a smart girl and she’s already got it figured out before she starts naming off names.
The easy ones come first, the people she cared about because Beth cares about everyone, but not the ones she loves. Not them. Not yet. She says their names one by one never taking her eyes off of him.
Tyreese and Sasha, Lizzie, Mika, a few of the others who came from Woodbury that got out of the prison when they did but he never saw again. Names he doesn’t even remember. At least for those, he can just shrug his shoulders. And she isn’t crying. It’s heavy, he can see it, the weight of the loss of these people is something she carries now.
Her nodding. Him nodding along with her. The silence is drawn out and it’s uncomfortable and as much as he just wants to get it over with, check off all the names on her list, he wants to stop right here. He wants to turn and run away into the forest with his bow and his shadow and nothing else. Not her and all the people they loved and lost.
But she’s back. She’s alive and she’s back and…
he’s not alone.
Clearing his throat he starts in again.
“Carol, she’s in another community not far.” Nodding she takes over.
“Glenn?” When he shakes his head he hears the intake of breath, a soft little gasp that gives him the chills.
“Carl?” This time he hears her whisper ‘no’ and he feels it in his own chest the way a heart can break and still go on beating.
“Judith?” He can nod, thank god he can nod and he does so, forcefully, the hair on his forehead covering his eyes.
“She’s here, prolly inside. We got another baby…”
“Maggie?” And there it is again that little spark of hope, that unwavering faith this girl has carried with her like a flame, a flame he once followed just to find his way. Now he’s gonna put it out.
“No.. no. She, and the baby. No.” Living through it, losing his people, it destroyed him. This. Telling her. It’s a different kind of hell. It’s like losing all of them again and watching it destroy her.
She’s strong, so incredibly strong, but everybody has a breaking point don’t they? Her tears spill over onto her cheeks and it’s devastating, but he can’t help but think, and feel guilty for the thought, that at that moment she’s beautiful. Because she’s alive and she’s standing here in front of him crying real tears and he’s not alone. He’s fucked up in so many ways but he doesn’t want to be alone and he doesn’t want to hurt her. He’s all she has left and he owes this to her.
“Beth, com’ere.” She’s shaking her head because of course they aren’t done yet.
“Michonne.” Daryl shakes his head again and Beth shudders and reaches for the hand he’s still holding out to her hand.
“Rick?” There is it. The last one. And he doesn’t even have to say or do anything. She moves in close and he can hear it now, her crying, it’s not just tears anymore. And it’s not just her.
He’s cried for them, every single one. Mourned for them, still does. But this, Beth, is here and they’re wrapped up in each other and he’s not alone. He doesn’t have to do this on his own anymore. For as many people as he has around him, good people, people he considers family, they don’t know what he’s lost, not completely. But she does.
Why she came back, how, all the details that seem like a mother fucking fairy tale will come in time. Right now she’s holding him up, as small as she is, she’s holding him up and stroking his hair and whispering things he can’t make out but it doesn't matter.
And yet it does.
“I told you-you were gonna be the last man standing, I told you… but I didn’t, not like this. Never like this.” Her voice is a whisper. Like the breeze that sometimes eddies through the leaves in the trees, it’s not in one place, it’s everywhere.
“Ain’t the last one, not no more girl.”