Bone deep tired.
That’s all Daryl feels. It’s like he hasn’t slept from the day the fire burned across the border. He knows he’s on his last legs, knows that one blow will send him over the edge. Alpha is still around, still killing, still encroaching on their land. Stealing it, tainting it, destroying it. They’re all so tired and when the news of Maggie’s return home come about, it just about revives him. It pushes him to the gates day after day, where he routinely checks in, waiting on Maggie’s arrival back to Hilltop. She sent the letter a while back, letting them know she was making plans to come home very soon, but they’ve been so distracted and pulled apart, it’s been weeks.
They don’t even know if she’s coming today. He’s been doing this for the last three since he read the letter. Wouldn’t have even known of it if he hadn’t come here with Carol. Near a week ago, Ezekiel said he had something he had to tell her, and it could only be done in person. Daryl don’t pry but he can tell Carol’s worried, something in the way he said it, she confides. They got here as soon as they could, as soon as Oceanside and Alexandria weren’t in need. They still are, it’s probably not going to stop until The Whisperers are as dead as they pretend to be, but it’s eased, and they had a window. Now he’s here for the fifth time today, dusk on the horizon, just to see if she’s coming.
The thought of Hershel is a prod too and he likes to think it’s because he loves the kid, which he does. Yet another part of him knows it’s the guilt that won’t ever go away, that he failed Hershel Senior and Glenn. That he’s got to protect Hershel’s daughter, Glenn’s wife and son. Beth’s nephew. That’s the truth of it though, at its core and he fucking knows it. It’s Beth, always there, a ghost that never leaves him. Prodding him to be good, being his listening ear, his guiding hand. It hurts to think about her, it always does because it’s always joined by that regret, that loss of something he just about touched.
That something he has no name for or maybe doesn’t want to name, not that it makes a difference. It hurts and he doesn’t do it often, doesn’t let himself picture her face, only the blur of candlelight and that braid in her pony. The hazy yellow of her cardigan, the faint stroke of piano keys. Sometimes he can’t fight it though and sometimes he welcomes it, to try and heal, is what he tells himself but its self-inflicted torture. Its punishment and somewhere in there, a reminder to not let people slip through his fingers. Last time he thought of her was when he saw her picture, Lydia at his side.
There was a moment where he let himself believe he could share with Lydia everything Beth was. He thinks they would have got along, that Beth would have given her the benefit of the doubt that Daryl did. That she would have seen the good in people, as he tries to do in her memory. It’s a moment he’s not happened upon since, the thought of trying to explain Beth like lead on his tongue. To explain the thing that was growing between them, something he doesn’t think he even understands, is too big to bare. Maggie’s letter though, revived the parts of him containing Beth he squashes down and let’s burn, brought her roaring back to the forefront of his mind.
There’s no movement at the gates when he pulls himself back into focus and he turns on his heel to walk away. Until the voices come, whispers that pick up into excited murmurs.
“It’s Maggie! Someone let the others know Maggie’s back!”
“Hey!” Daryl shouts up, cupping his hands to his mouth. “Open the gates!”
“Open the gates!” A voice relays, loud and booming in the air. “Maggie’s back!”
It spreads amongst the lookers on.
Hey guys, Maggie’s back!
Oh, look! Maggie!
And then Daryl hears it change, slowly and smoothly, transitioning.
Maggie’s back! Who’s that with her?
Hey Paul, d’you hear? Maggie’s back with some chick.
Maggie’s home, Luce, an’ there’s some blonde girl with her.
A cold spray of gooseflesh runs from the top of his spine all the way down and he shudders. He doesn’t know what it is, he’s always reacted to the word blonde. Some fucked up PTSD from not dealing with his feelings or some shit, he’s always guessed but this feels different. His stomach is knotting and his heart’s clanging. There’s something his body knows that he can’t catch up with and he attests it to seeing Maggie again in so long. It’s hard to look at her, it always has been. Deep down, he knows it’s something more but there’s always going to be a foolish part of him. The sound of the gates start cranking, the doors pushing inwards.
First thing he sees is Maggie, with hair longer than when he first met her all those years ago. She’s on horseback, Hershel Junior sat in front of her, his hands over hers on the reigns. There’s a pretty smile on her face that makes him feel ill. It’s the first time she’s come home and Enid wasn’t here to greet her. They told her, of course they did but he knows the difference between knowing and feeling. Maggie thinks she’s felt it but she wasn’t ever gonna really feel it until she come home. The gates split wider and so does Maggie’s grin when she spots Daryl. He raises his hand in a wave but Hershel is the one who waves back.
Daryl smiles a little and starts to walk forward, not far enough that it’ll take him more than two minutes to reach them. He’s almost made it, watching as Maggie draws her horse to a stop and helps Hershel down. Just a couple of more feet until he’s within reaching distance of them but something about the way Maggie turns to look behind her makes him pause. That cold gooseflesh rises again as he looks at the open air behind Maggie’s head. There’s nothing there but the gates are still open and that’s when he remembers the other person the gathering crowd were mumbling about.
His feet go numb watching, his hands hanging limply at his sides and his confused glance is stolen by Maggie’s head turning to look at him. There’s an indescribable expression on her face and she only looks at him for a second before she turns back to look behind her again. She wants him to see. This is important. It’s not danger, he can sense that but adrenaline courses through him like it is anyway. He can’t catch his breath, his throat strangling tight. What the hell is happening to him? Every limb goes numb as a chestnut horse comes into view. There’s no one on top of it but there is someone leading it on.
The angle he’s at means he can only see the incoming horse and a pale arm holding the reigns. Maybe it’s the sunlight, maybe it’s the weird tightness in his throat, maybe it’s the breath he doesn’t have or maybe he’s gone fucking crazy. The hand holding the reign is pale and even paler is the silver scar slashed across the wrist. Everything goes cold, his stomach hard ice as a leg comes into view, hips and then a torso. The hair swings in the breeze, as long as Maggie’s and braided. Thick, honey gold chunks twined together and swinging like a rope.
The head comes last and he doesn’t know but he does know. He really does fucking know. His hand spasms at his side, his leg twitching as his knee threatens to buckle. The head is turned to face the horse, now at a stop, that braid obscuring the face. The face he knows. Fuck, he knows. His eyes are burning into that braid and actually burning too. His throat is so fucking tight air is whistling in his nostrils. The woman’s body goes still, the hand tightens on the reigns and then the head begins to turn, and fuck he’s going to hurl. The head turns and there’s the corner of the mouth, the side of the nose. Her nose. Her fucking nose.
Then she’s looking at him. She’s looking right at him like she has any rights to be fucking real. She’s not that far, not that far at all but she’s too far for sound, too far for talking and yet he hears it anyway, hears it like he always remembers it, like it is in his dreams.
Beth’s voice whispering, “Daryl.”