In the crook of his elbow, arm tucked in and snoozing peacefully, lies a baby. He's held a few babies over the years- Judith, Hershel, Gracie, and RJ. Other kids from the various communities he's visited and worked with, mothers always willing to drop their children into his arms, no matter how sweaty or dirty.
He thinks he’s good with them. Hesitant and careful with the tiny ones, a little rough housing with the older kids. Teaching them, explaining how things work. Children are always so perceptive and eager to learn, curious and far more gentle than adults give them credit for. He doesn’t mind spending hours showing Judith how his bow works, or explain to RJ how to skin an animal. Educating the new generation is important, but he enjoys it, too. Those kids like coming to him, and they listen to every word he says. Contributing to their development, he takes pride in that.
When he was a kid, there weren’t many adults in his life taking the time to teach him much of anything. Even before his mom died, she was absent, and his dad would beat him for every mistake or simply interrupting a TV show. There was a librarian who took a shine on him for a while when he was about ten, fueling his desire to read, but she moved away with her husband when she got pregnant and he stayed away from the library again. He was old enough to understand that people were talking about his family, how rough they looked, and so he hid where no one would judge him or his dirty clothes- out in the woods, teaching himself as much as he could, learning what Merle knew, avoiding his home and the town folk alike.
His brother was patient with him where his father was not, but Merle was always in trouble with the law. Juvie, and later jail, so he wasn’t around that much. Without intending to, he left his little brother to his own devices, and Daryl just had to make do. He wasn’t dumb, but lacked the leadership to help reach his goals. Still, he managed to finish his GED, get odd jobs, a cheap room to rent. His life wasn’t rich, but he got by. He didn’t feel like he lacked anything. A girlfriend here and there, but no desire to have a family of his own, not with the experience he had growing up in a loveless home.
Then the turn happened, and suddenly he had a family. People that had his back, loved him, risked their lives for him. A chosen family, by chance and coincidence and luck alike. It wasn’t instantly of course, but with time, he learned what family means, what it means to love people, to open up to them, and it didn’t come without pain, without loss.
He knows that nothing is certain, the undead are still out there, but much more decomposed, herds smaller and easier to deal with. There are still living enemies, but fewer and far between.
And he has so many things to strive for, work hard for. The future of these communities, the families, the children.
There was a time, when he didn’t believe in that. Made himself not care for anyone, or pretended to anyway. Lived in a tent by a river with a dog he called dog for the simple reason that he didn’t want to grow attached to him. That, too, was getting by. Living in the woods, not needing much but still giving. Because as much as he wanted to keep his distance, he couldn’t. Kept a watchful eye on Alexandria and Hilltop, only on the periphery. Just to make sure. Just so he could sleep at night, knowing the people he still cared for were as safe as possible.
This again changed when she returned. A ghost come to life and it was a dream and a nightmare at once. After all these years a woman showed up, and the girl they knew was still dead. Funny thing was, she wasn’t so very unlike him now. Her hair just as wild as his and her nails just as dirty, and no sir, she didn’t want to live inside anymore either. For months, they hardly spoke, even when they shared a fire. In that light, he sometimes caught a glimpse of the girl she once was, and he could almost taste the moonshine of this particular memory on his tongue.
They did a lot of things backwards, he supposes. They lived together without agreeing on it. They had sex before they held hands. They were accepted as a couple before they defined their relationship.
Out there on their own, a lot of healing happened. He relearned not to be alone, that it was OK to care for people and be with them. She relearned to trust again, to open her heart to the possibility of good, capable people. It took them a long time to share what happened to them in all these years apart. It wasn’t like a dam breaking, the emotions and stories weren’t flowing naturally, far from it. He was never a talker and she wasn’t anymore. So it was like picking at scabs, like tearing old scars open and laying out their insides in front of each other. A painful, grueling process, but they did it, bit by bit, until they knew each other inside out. No secrets, no agendas or hidden emotions.
It was just them, and together, they learned to fall in love, with each other and life itself.
They did move to Hilltop, when she needed Maggie and Enid. It was an easy choice to go- while their set-up was convenient, a small cottage not too far from the community, it was also getting harder to get by in the last few weeks of her pregnancy, especially in the colder weather.
Everyone was so excited to have them there, and it was truly a village coming together for them. And as much as Beth and Daryl enjoy their independence, it feels good to be with family.
It had taken almost forty years to learn what it means to have a family. And as he’s sitting here, holding his sleeping son, his heart is fuller than he ever imagined it to be. After everything: his fucked up childhood, mediocre life, the turn, all the loss, pain, and heartbreak, here he is. The perfect little being that makes it all worth it.
It feels natural caring for his child, after being an uncle to so many already. Yet holding his own baby feels so different from holding any of the others.
He’ll never grow tired of staring at his boy, the perfect mix of his parents. Fair skin and fuzzy hair, blonde lashes he keeps counting, fingers now curled tightly in his shirt. Daryl cannot wait to show his son all the things his parents deprived him of. He has vowed to shower him with love and affection, be patient in his teachings, and above all to keep this little boy and his momma safe for as long as he draws breath.
Thinking back to the birth- late at night, during a heavy snowstorm- he knows he fell in love with Beth all over. Her resilience and strength through the pain awed him. Holding his son for the first time, he had no idea he could feel so much love and fulfillment. It’s still hard to accept that he might, despite all he’s done in life, deserve it.
They deserve it. He’s immensely proud of Beth, how far she’s come, how hard she’s worked to be here, and there is not doubt in his mind that she will be the best mother this child could hope for.
His son will miss out on the best aunties and uncles, friends gone too soon. But not forgotten. With each person lost, his parents were shaped and hopefully will continue to turn this pain into strength, so they will both be able to see their son grow up, grow old themselves, and simply, at last, be happy.
He has a wife, a child, and a whole community behind him. They are thriving, but not fooling themselves. They are content, but cautious. And in this world they live in, he supposes, that is as good as it gets.
Judging by the healthy baby in his arms, his gorgeous, healthy wife in the bed behind him, life is pretty good to them in spite of it all.