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They go to work setting up the perimeter, Daryl winds the rope around the area while Beth adjusts the noisemakers for maximum effect.  They used to argue about who would go on watch first, but Daryl always managed to win so they don’t discuss it anymore.  Daryl grabs his bow, checks that it’s loaded, and slides down with his back against a tree until he’s sitting with his legs stretched out.

Beth fusses with any leftover food, not wanting to waste a bit of their precious stash, makes sure the embers of the fire are no longer glowing before taking her journal out and writing.  She writes only the basics of what she feels she should commit to memory, saving paper for when they need material to start a fire, when there’s no light to bend through glass.  She goes and sits beside Daryl.  It’s quiet, always so quiet at this point when night is beginning to fall and creatures who make their days in the dark are just beginning to stir.  Daryl will reach an arm out, a move that surprised her at first, but now is part of this nightly dance, and nudge her shoulder closer.  

Beth doesn’t hesitate anymore, and moves towards Daryl, leaning down to rest her head against his shoulder.  She will fall asleep, and eventually in her slumber she will curl right into his side.  Her head slipping down into his lap, her arm draped hugging his leg, hand dangerously close the part of him he doesn’t like to think about.   Can’t think about, not out here.

He lets her sleep longer. He always does.  She doesn’t mention it but she always tries to will herself awake earlier so that he can get just as much rest.  It never works though, and she’s in constant awe at how he’s able to power through these long days on the run with so little respite.  

The truth is, he doesn’t need sleep the way another might.  He’s fuelled by his goal: keeping her safe.  He doesn’t know exactly when things shifted from surviving, getting through another day and another night.  But now?  Now it’s more .  In the beginning it was about putting as much distance between them and the smoldering remains of their home.  After it was about finding their family, but even that hope had started to fade somewhere between a burning ‘shine shack and the undertaker’s residence they’d narrowly escaped.  

It’s deep in the night, and he knows he should be waking her up soon.  Knows he needs his own rest, but every night he holds her through her nightmares and somehow when his turn to sleep rolls around he finds no peace in his own dreams.  His thoughts remain with her and all the things he could have, should have done to keep her safe.  

But every night she wakes, sometimes with a start.  She looks up at him and blushes and quickly pulls herself from his lap, wiping the drool from the corner of her mouth and the sleep from her eyes.  He tries not to think about how watching her makes him feel as she beckons him to rest his head against her thigh.  He obliges, another part of their routine.  They don’t say anything, and after awhile she can feel his breath even out.  

***

He dreams of finding a little place before winter.  Somewhere big enough for the two of them that he can secure before the cold sets in.  It’s by a lake and a lush forest and he’s able to hunt enough game to fill them both.  In one moment he sees Beth sitting across from him in a little boat.  The water is sparkling in the late afternoon light and her hair is gold and he can barely breathe from the swelling ache in his chest.  She giggles wildly as her fishing rod jerks toward the water, “Oh!  I think I’ve got one!”  Hundreds of fish swim beneath them, vying for a chance to be caught.  

In the next moment he feels the warmth of flames at his back, and he sees her standing in a kitchen, looking out onto the now frozen lake.  That damn mutt is there, sitting obediently at her feet as she slices some kind of meat.  Snow is falling.  He looks down to see that he’s cleaning his bolts by a fireplace.  He thinks he smells something sweet baking in the old cast iron stove.  The light sounds of her singing fill the room.

“Where have you two been?” she giggles and pats the mutt on his head as his tail wags in joy at seeing her.  She’s on her knees in the dirt, tending a small garden.  It’s late spring now, and she stops to wipe her brow and adjust the little bunch of wildflowers she has gathered behind her ear.  Looking up at him, she blocks the sun from her eyes and grins, “Soup’s on in the house, might be a little something for this guy in there too.”  A breeze ruffles her wild hair, and the little dog’s tail beats faster.  

Early evening in fall, judging by the colours of the leaves and the crisp air he feels prickling his skin.  Beth is wrapped in an oversized plaid jacket.  Her cheeks are stained from the cold and she’s lugging firewood towards the house.  He feels the weight of the logs in his own arms.  She sets her load down on the deck and turns around to take his, leaning in and kissing him softly on the cheek.  “Think that’s the last of the wood for now, “ she says.  “I ain’t going out and chopping more in the middle of winter, Greene.”  “We’ll just have to keep each other warm then, Mr. Dixon,” and the smirk on her face is enough to make him burn from head to toe.

***

He wakes to the sound of birds and the feeling of light streaming through the trees, the sun much higher than usual.  He feels her hands gently working through his dirty hair, nails scratching softly at his scalp.  “Daryl,” she says in a low voice, “we need to get moving.”

He shakes the pins and needles from his limbs as he sits up.  He can’t believe he’s slept this long.  Panic sets in and with wild eyes he looks around their camp site, and then back to Beth, ready to apologize for being so careless.  Holding himself responsible even in his sleep.  

“It’s okay, Daryl,” she’s standing now, slipping her knife back into its sheath and adjusting her pack, “you needed that.  I’ve never seen you sleep so deeply.  You looked so-”  She stops then and the look on her face tells Daryl she realizes how her words sound.

“Not that I was watchin’ you sleep, I don’t- I don’t watch you sleep!  But you were out so long I had to make sure you were still breathin’!”

He shoulders his own pack and picks up his bow, looking down at his feet where his boots shift in the dirt.  He doesn’t know why but suddenly he feels like he can’t look at her.  He thinks it must have been something in his dreams but right now, he can’t remember what it could have been.  They’re both quiet as they dismantle the noise makers and cover their tracks.

“Go on,” he says, waving his hand towards to the forest on his left, “best let you practice tracking again.  You’re gettin’ rusty, Greene.”  She sighs but sets off into the forest, Daryl falling in step silently behind her.  He wants to make a comment about squirrels hearing her coming from fifty miles away, settle into their usual pattern of snark and sarcasm, but his mind is still trying to grab onto whatever it is that’s made him feel sort of off this morning.  

They walk until the sun dips lower and lower in the sky and they need to start thinking about setting up camp again.  They find another cluster of trees, and Beth begins unpacking their defenses, making as little noise as possible as she pulls the bits of aluminum from her pack.  Daryl flips his canteen and shakes it, but it’s bone dry, and he knows they’ll need more water, sooner than later.  

“Going to look for a stream,” he grunts out.  She nods at him and gets back to the jobs that need doing, reaching for his pack where they keep the rope.  

He walks for a little while before he starts to feel the ground sloping and notices the trees are thinning a bit ahead.  Daryl emerges from a tree line and everything that his mind was trying to grasp suddenly comes rushing forward.  His dreams slam into him in blazing technicolour and he nearly loses his footing entirely, his body now shaking in disbelief because just beyond the forest, he sees it. All of it is there, the lake, the cabin, the little wooden boat leaning against a tree.  

He shakes his head, expecting the sight in front of him to dissolve into mist but it doesn’t and he catches himself laughing out loud.  He stops quickly though, remembering where he is and what kind of world he’s in.  With dusk edging closer, he hefts his crossbow in front of him and approaches the cabin.  

It doesn’t take him long to sweep the little place, finding it free of walkers and humans.  He pulls the front door behind him and walks forward to head down the set of steps, but a thought strikes him then and turns back.

He reaches into his back pocket, producing the red rag he keeps there, and wraps it around the doorknob.  He fusses with it for a few minutes, trying to make it look less like a scrap of cloth and more like a bow.  Then he takes the steps two at a time and swiftly moves up the slope and back into the forest.  Back to the campsite they won’t need to shiver in tonight.  

He can’t wait to show her what he’s found.  He moves silently through the woods, anticipation, and -dare he think it- hope filling his chest.  Maybe, just maybe they could make it work.  Sure the world had gone to hell but it could be okay, couldn’t it?

Maybe they can live here, really live.  For the rest of their lives.