The taste of the cigarette lingered in his mouth as he offered Aaron his life with open palms. He could feel the other man's stare tight on him, his look of bafflement that Daryl was willing to sacrifice himself so that he might have the slightest of possibilities to live. Daryl didn't have the words to tell him the truth, if he died like this he could be with her again without any guilt. If the cost of his life bought that of another's she would welcome him with nothing but open arms.
If there was anything waiting for him at all that was.
If after everything he'd done Daryl could even still be considered good enough to see her again.
Before those thoughts could consume him Aaron refused his plan, well his suicide mission to put it bluntly, with an offer of his own. And maybe it was the doubts roiling around his brain that there would be nothing but more emptiness after he died that had him not fighting it or maybe it was the knowledge that if there was any form of an afterlife she would be furious with him for not trying this plan where both he and Arron could live that got him to agree to it. They would fight their way out together because that was the only way anyone lived anymore.
By fighting together.
His fingers had just curled around the handle of his knife (always his knife and never hers for of course it was still hers. Daryl didn't carry it to use it as a weapon, he carried it because it was the only real piece of her that he could still hold onto.) when the skull of the walker pressing its face into Aaron's window caved in.
They had just enough time to exchange a look of pure confusion before the door was yanked open and a man's voice was yelling for them to run. Daryl tightened his grip on his knife and his bow before sliding out of the car after Aaron, his knife sinking home into the brain of any walker that got too close. He was so busy trying to wrap his mind around this sudden turn of events, this third option that they had not known had been available to them, that Daryl barely noticed that there were two hooded figures running in front of them.
When he did notice them Daryl couldn't help but wonder if somewhere, in whatever waited for them all after, Beth had heard his thoughts. If she had sent these people to save them to prolong what little time they had left in this world. As if anytime without her was actually worth living.
He was almost to safety when the toe of his boot caught on a crack in the pavement and he fell to his knees just inside the gate. Before Daryl could even register the fact that he was on the ground two pairs of hands were grabbing at his arms and pulling him forward away from the moans of the dead. He heard the sound of the gate being locked together and Daryl rose his gaze from the pavement to look at the faces of their saviors in gratitude. But his eyes had barely moved before they landed on a pair of scuffed cowboy boots that were all too familiar.
He knew those shoes just like he knew the torn jeans tucked into them as he slowly got his eyes to travel up the body in front of him. Even though he could just see the edges of the sleeves he knew that torn gray cardigan, the one he had found for her himself when the seasons changed and she spent half the nights with her teeth chattering so loudly he thought she'd bring an entire horde down on them. The woman standing before him rose her hands to the hood covering most of her face but Daryl knew what he was going to see even before she pushed it down.
Her eyes were wide in surprise but Daryl could not hold them as he studied her face like he was a drowning man and she was the only thing that could keep him afloat. Daryl knew that face, he saw it every night when he slept. The scars were still unfamiliar to him as he had only seen two of them briefly in the hallway that would become his most frequently reoccurring nightmare and the small circular one on her forehead had never been there before. But it was still her face. Still her blue eyes staring down at him in wonder.
A thousand thoughts raced through his mind so fast that he barely managed to catch them all. In the end one thing stood out to him, the only thing that could possibly make sense. The only way she could even be here.
"So we're dead then?" he finally whispered, his voice cracking on the last word as he looked up at her blonde hair framed in the late afternoon sunlight. She had shifted so that the sun behind her cast her features into shadows but Daryl could remember every aspect of her smiles and he knew she had to be wearing one now as she took another step closer to him causing him to lean his head back to look up at her.
"No Daryl." Her voice sounded sweeter than anything he had ever heard and his name in her mouth was just to much for him.
This couldn't be real.
Beth's hands came up to cup his face, his eyes drifting shut as her slim fingers brushed over the scruff of his beard. There was a soft thud and when Daryl finally found the strength to open his eyes he was not truly expecting to find her still there. And yet she was. Those blue eyes he thought he'd never see again were watching him with a hardness that had not been there before. But not even that could hide the hope and the love shining through her as she looked at him.
"We're alive." Beth whispered, her smile growing until it outshone the sun behind her. A whimper escaped Daryl's lips at her words and Beth's fingers curled slightly into his beard at the sound. Her grip on his face stopped him from shaking his head as frantically as he was trying but still her eyes flooded with pain as she watched him try to deny her words.
If he wasn't dead then she couldn't be real. And if she wasn't real Daryl didn't know what he would do.
He didn't think he could survive losing her again.
"I watched you die." he finally whispered, his voice surprisingly steady as he finally admitted the image that haunted him in both his sleeping and waking hours.
Beth shook her head, scooting closer to him so that their knees touched where they knelt on the asphalt. The growls of the walkers behind them seemed like a constant hum in his ears but even they could not cover the words as Beth whispered, "You watched me get shot."
Daryl watched her closely, his eyes searching hers for some sign that this was all in his head, that his mind had finally cracked under the torment of the world and conjured up the one thing that would give him comfort. But Daryl had never had the best of imaginations and he did not think that he would have ever been able to imagine Beth in such vivid detail. He never would have been able to remember the softness of her skin or the way her hair looked when the sun shone on it.
And it was that knowledge more than her own words that got him to believe her when she whispered, "But you didn't see me die Daryl because I'm not dead. I'm alive."
The noise that left him then had never before left his mouth. A cross between a laugh and a sob escaped him as Beth gave him the most radiant smile he had seen since that night they sent up their past in flames. Her hands drifted from his face as she wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her body up against his as she held him. At first all Daryl could do was turn and bury his face in her hair, his nose filling with that scent that was just Beth. It was as if his whole body was in shock and it took him much more concentration than it should have to raise his arms to wrap around her back.
As they clung to each other Daryl heard the sounds of Aaron and Beth's companion speaking softly. Beth's hair tickled his face as he pressed his nose closer into her neck as she wound her fingers into his hair. He was finally letting himself believe that this was real, that she was truly here and alive when he heard Aaron speak, "We have good news."
As if any news could possibly be better than the news he had just gotten. As if a gated community was better than the woman in his arms.
"I missed you." he whispered, his lips brushing against her skin as he thought back on those days that had just seemed like a never ending fog of grief. Daryl wasn't sure what it was that had him whispering the words to her, perhaps it was the fact that their last conversation had been cut off so abruptly, but whatever it was he was overcome by the sudden urge to have her realize just how right she had been. Once she was gone, well it was like part of him went with her. "I missed you so bad Beth."
Her fingers curled into his hair as he clutched her to him so tightly that not even air could fit in the nonexistent space between their bodies.
Daryl heard Beth draw in a shaky breath as she turned to press a kiss lightly against his hair before whispering,"Me too."