Apologies for the long wait, I had an unexpected and very difficult houseguest (whose biggest issue in life was rationing my soap, my soap, that I buy - I'm not even kidding) and then I had numerous pet-related emergencies. I'd also really rather take a little longer and make things as good as I can instead of giving you guys something I am unhappy with.

Thanks to everyone who is reading, who is commenting, following, favouriting, bookmarking and lurking. You guys have no idea how much your support means to me. No idea. This fandom is pretty incredible. And the people on this ship are amazing.

I hope you like this chapter, it wasn't an easy one to write on account of me still trying to set the scene and get inside Daryl's head (what a maze).

Please let me know if you find mistakes.

Soundtrack for those who are interested:

She is the Sunlight - Trading Yesterday (this is like my number one Bethyl song, the feeeels just kill me)

Angel - Aerosmith

Something I can never have - Nine Inch Nails

Butterfly on a wheel - The Mission

Into my arms - Nick Cave


He doesn't feel her slip out of his arms, doesn't feel her go. Later he wonders how he missed it, how someone who sleeps as lightly as he does didn't notice her up and leave. He remembers how she kissed him though, how she'd fitted to his body so perfectly even though she's so small and he's clumsy and crude and all thumbs. He remembers how he'd kissed her mouth, her cheek, how his lips travelled down her neck, how he could taste the dirt - the sweat - of her under his tongue.

But he also remembers the voices in his head, how they raged and laughed - a maddening cacophony that drowned out everything, making Beth and her sweet kisses and her soft skin into a minefield of twisted emotions and blackened morality under his hands.

They'd been fine to start off with. Usually, the voices came and went, depending on the mood or as Joe would have said "the general attitude of the day". Always a little crazy, some recognisable like his ma and old man, Grandma Lila. Others less distinct, an amalgamation of school bullies, pretty girls and redneck douchebags he used to know. He'd been teased and tormented long enough to know how to ignore them. And it wasn't like he actually believed he had people living in his head. In the cold light of day he knew that it was him. All his demons. All his fears. All his insecurities.

All him.

But there was a wildcard.

Isn't there always?

Because just when he managed to drown them out, just when he'd shut them up long enough to think, to breathe, to feel, just when he thought he was out of the woods and maybe, just maybe he could go on kissing Beth for a little longer, a few seconds maybe. An hour. The next century would do as well. He ain't fussy. That was when the big guns came out.

Merle.

Always fucking Merle

His crazy-ass brother's voice lived in his head now too. Had since the day he'd found him turned, gorging on the guts of the dead. Had long before that too, if he was brutally honest with himself.

But he wasn't. And he liked that just fine that way, thank you very much.

Because as much as he wanted, no, needed, to deny it, one way or another Merle was his personal reckoning, the bogeyman hiding in the closet just when the movie should be over.

The problem was it was Merle, not an unfriendly monster, not one that was likely to bite or claw or drag you back under the bed, leaving nothing but some bloodied fingernail marks on the floor. No, he was subtler than that. The devil on your shoulder, the one who sucked you in, who seduced you to come over to the dark side, who promised a twisted salvation where you could have peace, where you could revel in the depravity.

The one that told you fucking Beth Greene was the best idea ever and exactly what you should do.

Which automatically made it into the last thing you should do.

It was a fine line to walk and Daryl often found himself stumbling. Didn't want to be his brother but making every moral question into a case of "What Would Merle Do?" made it hard to see things clearly. Because Merle would have fucked Beth. There and then. Hard and fast. Swift and sure. Wouldn't have thought twice about it.

And if he would have done it, it was probably a bad idea.

A very bad idea.

He thinks of his Ma. He shouldn't, but he does and it bothers him that she's been popping up in his mind so often. She once told him something about fighting monsters and not becoming one yourself. Also something about an abyss but he can't really remember all too well. He hated those days when she started quoting books and famous people and talking about the world outside of the Dixon trailer. Hated them because it always jolted him, threw him off when he remembered that his Ma hadn't always been like this. Hadn't always been a shadow, hadn't always been dead inside. That she'd had a chance at a different life and bad choices and worse circumstances had taken that all away from her. Taken it and thrown it into that abyss of cigarettes and booze and pills.

It was a very clever man that said it, Daryl. That stuff about monsters. Cleverer than me, she said, much cleverer than your dad. But not cleverer than you, my boy. Nowhere near.

His Ma's grasp on reality had always been questionable. Very questionable.

He recalls the day perfectly, her bruised arms, the scratches on her cheek, his old man snoring away a drunken stupor on the couch. He'd been so angry, so enraged when he saw her battered shoulders that his ten-year-old self hadn't stopped to think. Her bruises were all there was, they filled his entire world with their sickly purple hue and he'd run to the kitchen drawer, pulled out the sharpest knife he could find - now that he thinks on it, the knife probably wasn't that sharp (nothing in the Dixon household actually worked) - and was halfway across the room before his Ma grabbed him, pulled him to her breast and rocked him while he cried against her stained nightgown that reeked of cigarettes and sweat. And that's when she told him, when she whispered to him that he had to be the one good thing she'd done in the world. Told him it was too late for her, for Merle, but maybe it wasn't too late for him. And she couldn't - she wouldn't - let her little boy, her sweet son turn into a monster. She just wouldn't. She would keep him pure, flawless.

Even then he knew she was talking trash, one too many sleeping pills, mixed with one too many painkillers, mixed with one too many bottles of Jim Beam. She could think he was different all she wanted but this was him, this was Daryl Dixon. He had Dixon blood. Tainted Dixon blood. It was as much a part of him as breathing. The only difference between him and Merle, him and his father was a few years. A decade or two down the line and that's where he'd be. On the couch, sleeping off a high. Maybe even a battered woman crying over him like his Ma was now.

But she'd asked him to promise her he wouldn't give in, wouldn't give up his goodness and he'd said yes to stop her crying, even though he didn't really believe it. Couldn't really believe it. It was like telling him to become president or find a cure for cancer. Telling him he'd be a millionaire and stop human trafficking while saving stray dogs off the street in his spare time. Impossible nonsense.

Impossible.

Nonsense.

But the truth of it was he tried. Every goddamned day he tried. He wasn't Merle. If nothing else good came out of the last two or three years, it was that. But every now and then, when he felt his worst, when it seemed like the world was shitting on his head just because it could and that he was cursed, he felt like he was being pulled into that abyss. And that he was going to take everything close to him along for the ride.

Everything. Like Beth Greene.

Beth Greene who'd kissed him, slipped under the blanket with him and moulded herself around him, pulling him to her. Beth Greene who'd let him kiss her, let him put his clumsy hands on her, who chased most of the voices away with the sweetness of her mouth, the softness of her body.

He wonders now if she'd been as buzzed as he was, if she also felt like her heart was going to jump out of her chest, if even the smallest sliver of her was scared of rejection.

Beth wasn't the type of girl who got rejected.

Since when did the fucking prom queen get turned down by the likes of well, him? He thinks briefly of Junie Day prom queen circa 1991 when he would have graduated - if he had graduated - thinks of her red hair and her green eyes and how they'd been friends once upon a time, before her family suddenly came into a lot of money, a lot of money, and they moved out of the trailer park and into Roswell and suddenly Daryl Dixon wasn't good enough to lick her boots. He's mostly over it now. Mostly. Couldn't blame the girl, not really. If he'd had the opportunity to leave he would have, but he liked to think he wouldn't have left everyone else behind. Liked the think that if he saw Junie Day and her family out one day he'd have stopped to say hi instead of pretending he didn't know them, like Junie did that day him and Merle had seen her in the Atlanta city centre, looking like she'd just stepped out of the pages of a fashion catalogue. He wonders where Junie is now. Last time he heard of her was a decade ago and she was getting married to some fancy pants lawyer. He wonders if she made it out before the virus hit, if she found some kind of safe zone or if she's holed up in a house somewhere like this one, waiting for it all to be over. Of course, there's always the possibility that she's a geek, a biter, a walker.

He shakes his head. No. He hopes Junie made it. Despite how she treated him, despite her unkind words the last time they spoke when she told him that redneck trash was her past now and how sick she was of him pining after her like a lost puppy. Merle had laughed when he heard, thought it was hilarious. Told him even white trash like the Days have standards, don't want nothing to do with the Dixons. Don't want Daryl Dixon sniffing around their redneck princess. Asked him how he could have been so fucking stupid as to think Junie Day, even at her worst when she was begging stale bread off his Ma while his old man was out, would have ever looked at him twice. Aim high, he'd said sarcastically before laughing hysterically again. Aim as fucking high as you can brother, ain't no way that could ever work out badly for you.

And that's what he heard Merle say when the rest of the voices were drowned out. Aim high. Aim as fucking high as you can brother. Sure, Dixons don't get the homecoming queen, they don't get the prettiest girl in the room. It's just all a big joke. So if this cute little piece of ass is giving it away for free, ain't no reason to say no. Ain't no reason not to make her beg for it. Give it to her brother, give it to her hard, give it to her good.

That's what he heard when he'd kissed her before they slept, when he'd woken up and invited her back under the blanket, when he moved his lips to her smooth neck, it was all there. That brash laugh, a leer so loud he could almost hear it. And he had to stop. Even though he really didn't want to, even though he didn't think she wanted him to. Even though he felt like he was dying when he moved off her and locking his arms around her was all he could do not to touch the rest of her, not to even think of putting his hands on her skin, her flesh, those meagre curves that were impossible not to notice.

She'd been sweet though, snuggling against him, and soon there was just white noise in his head, nothing serious, nothing he couldn't handle. He didn't know what to say, so he'd just held her, held her while he could still taste her on his tongue, while she ran gentle fingers through his hair, as the sweaty smell of her - of them - filled him and for the first time in weeks, for the first time since the funeral home, he felt himself relax. Maybe a little too well. Because he fell asleep again and when he woke up she was gone.

"Beth?" he calls as he shifts on the couch.

His shoulder jars as he sits up and it's like an alarm for every other bruise, muscle and scab to wake up and stand to attention. He winces, closing his eyes briefly against the pain, putting a hand to his belly. They'd got him better than he thought, much better actually.

He thinks of looking in the mirror and then remembers how much the jagged image freaked Beth out and decides against it. Won't be much to see, just an asshole redneck looking like he'd been in a bar fight. It was a reflection he'd seen often enough before anyway. Didn't need no reminders.

He calls her name again as he pulls his boots on, but the house is silent. And he starts to worry a little. He's come down from the adrenalin high. He's not thinking about hell and angels and purgatory and infernos and shit. It takes him a second to comprehend exactly how out of his mind he had been the previous night, exactly how far into Crazytown he'd gone.

(Briefly, he wonders how far into Crazytown she'd gone and if that's why she'd kissed him.)

But now, it's better, he knows he's not dreaming, well at least as much as anyone ever knows they ain't dreaming. Yeah, yeah, he's done the whole "what if I'm in a coma and this is just a long extended little mind adventure before I check out". If it is he wishes the doctor would change his meds because it's been one hell of a trip and he could easily do with a change to kittens and rainbows for the rest of his life. But he knows this is as real as he's going to get for now. And he knows Beth is here somewhere, can still smell her on his hands, wishes he could still have her taste in his mouth.

Standing brings a whole new level of pain. His muscles bunch and cramp, his legs buckle even though they feel like they're in a vice and he has to grab onto the couch for a moment to stop himself falling over. His shoulder feels like a demon from that ninth circle he was so worried about has managed to claw its way into his flesh and follow him out of hell as his own little personal reminder of just how fucking close they came.

How fucking close.

Funny what fear can do, how it can push you, how it can override basic needs, basic human endurance and keep you moving through it.

He's still in shock though. The previous night and all its horrors still lurk close to the surface and no amount of endorphin-fuelled emotion will quiet them. He needs time, that's all. Time with her, time to "reflect" as Joe said. Time to get used to the idea of not being alone and having someone he can trust nearby.

Another groan as he takes the crossbow and opens the front door, walks down the steps. Stands in the rain outside, blinking stupidly in the bad light. This weather is fucked up. Makes no sense to him any more, but then again a little bit of wacky weather is nothing compared to the fact that dead people are walking around.

Yeah, when you think about it that way, it puts a lot of things into perspective.

He scans the drive, noticing again how identical the houses all are save for different colour flower boxes outside each. The two walkers he killed from the previous day are still lying next to the gate but there's another one now. A middle-aged man, dressed in a suit lying near the car. He knows he didn't kill that one and he starts to panic. His empty stomach lurches - they really should have cleaned this place out better. They really had been idiots. Wild, high idiots thinking themselves untouchable in a world like this.

"Beth?" he calls, "Beth?"

It's cold, really fucking cold all of a sudden. She couldn't have gone far, ain't no way she would have run off on him, run off without him.

Yeah, like Junie Day. That was Merle's voice, his stupid-ass voice.

He calls again, trying to keep the panic at bay, telling himself that she's fine, she hasn't disappeared.

(Wouldn't kill you to have a little faith)

But he's worried. Really fucking worried because he knows his mind ain't right and he knows he's not all that sharp right now and he doesn't think he can take another round of God and his cosmic pranks that he likes to play on Daryl Dixon for shits and giggles.

"Fuck Beth!" He calls. "You here girl?"

Silence. Silence except for the pitter patter of rain, the hush of the wind.

This ain't right, he tells himself, this just ain't right. He did this once before. Ran all night for her before collapsing on the side of the tracks. But this time he has nothing, nowhere to go, nothing to follow.

He shouts again no longer caring if there's anyone, walker or not, to hear, and just when he thinks that's it and he's about to fall down in the rain only to look up to see Joe and Len admiring his crossbow, the door of the house next door opens and she's there. Wrapped in a short blue robe, hair wet, droplets of icy water falling off her skin.

He blinks.

She grins.

He tries to grin back but his heart doesn't stop its rapid-fire thumping and for a second he thinks he's going nuts and this is Merle in the woods all over again.

"Come on," she says. "It's freezing out here."

His voice is gone, so he does what she says because it's easier than trying to explain anything or scold her for running off or hell, confess his love. Yeah, he doesn't know where that last one came from. Except, you know, he does.

"I thought whoever lived there had moved," she says indicating the other house and he's starting to think she's real again. "This place has much more stuff."

He's not sure what counts as stuff but she's fine and that right there is a win. That robe though, he's not sure if that's a win or a one way ticket to hell and his gut clenches a little.

The house is identical to the last one - kitchen, lounge and dining room downstairs and three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. But it's furnished in a kind of retro 1970s style that includes a wall mural of spirographs next to pinups of girls in poodle skirts ironing and serving beer and playing with cats. If there's a seventies version of a dudebro, he lived here once upon a time. He can't quite figure it out but then he's really never understood people with money.

He looks at the pictures on the mantle above a dusty fireplace. A middle-aged couple. He has a ponytail and a huge handlebar mustache while she is pretty and heavily made up with big eighties hair. They're on a boat obviously somewhere on holiday, drinking rum. A photo from before, a happier time. He wonders why they moved on from here until he sees another photo of a young woman, a carbon copy of both of them wearing a Mercer University Bears jersey and it all falls into place.

There might be no bodies here, no walkers, but suddenly the house reeks of death.

He knows she's watching him as he takes it all in, as he looks around at the over the top furnishing, the lava lamps, the retro brown and yellow striped couch, as his gaze travels to the kitchen and the avocado green grocery cupboards in it. And he's acutely aware that she's standing very close and that her robe is very short.

He clears his throat and looks at her.

"Did you have a bath?" He asks and it's stupid, irrelevant and totally not what he wanted to say because what the hell do you say now, the morning after the night before?

She grins again.

"They have a well-point. Water's cold and there's no pressure but it's water and it's clean."

So much for his brilliant ice-cream tub plan.

"And they have a gas stove." She continues. "With gas."

"All these places?" he asks and she shrugs.

"Only looked at this one."

"Wonder why that other one was such a dump?"

She shrugs again.

He humphs.

He feels weird, jangly. She's smiling and upbeat and he thinks he should say something, anything. But she's in that little blue robe and he doesn't want to look at her too long.

"There was a walker outside," he says because he can't think of anything else and his mind is wandering to very dark places as he remembers her lips on his and the feel of her skin under his hands.

"Oh," she doesn't seem worried. "I killed it earlier, it must have been behind the houses when we arrived last night."

"Yeah, well we'll need to clear this place good and proper."

She nods and looks a lot less serious than she should.

"I found some food here. Some tinned peaches and pie apples. And a can of condensed milk."

"Make us sick," he says but his stomach rumbles loudly and he goes into the kitchen to where she's laid the cans out on the counter, picking them up and pretending to read the labels.

"Your shoulder ok?" She asks from the doorway and he makes a noise that means "yes" and "stop fussing" at the same time.

He chances a peek at her and that little robe that barely touches her thighs makes his breath hitch.

He looks away when she catches his gaze.

"It's ok Daryl," she says and it feels like she is humouring him and he's embarrassed.

He makes that noise again and takes a swig of the condensed milk directly from the tin, messing down his front, staining over the blood already there. It's ridiculously sweet, like drinking melted sugar and his empty stomach lurches.

She frowns and it's the same look she gave him at the funeral home.

"Gross."

And because he doesn't know what else to do, he grins at her.

She rolls her eyes and he's about to chuckle when she rubs her shoulder, the robe falling open slightly. There are dark bruises against her pale skin, so dark that he doesn't understand how he didn't see them last night when all she wore was his vest. Maybe he was still too buzzed, maybe he was still too focused on the fact that she was here and alive and it was a miracle the likes of which no one in the Dixon family has ever seen before nor likely would see again.

But there they are, big and black and blue, a line of them running across her shoulder and into her hairline. His gaze drops to her arm. Len's handprint stands out raw and red above her elbow, another one on her wrist.

He hates it. It makes him think of his Ma. Again. And he really doesn't want to keep thinking about his Ma ... and how her shoulders and arms were always covered in purple bruises. His old man was nothing if not strategic, precise. Never bruised where you couldn't cover up. Was why he'd see his Ma in turtle neck jumpers in the middle of the Georgia summer. She claimed she was just a cold person. Fact was she was just a beat person, a punching bag. Old man Dixon was very clever, knew where the pressure points were, knew how to hit where it did the most damage. And sometimes, when he was looking for a fight, when he was so drunk and so high he'd prepare beforehand. Was like watching a fucking horror movie unfold in front of him.

It would always start slow, slow and easy.

The old man would be in a good mood, riding out his high, humming to himself under his breath, reading the papers, smoking a cigarette.

"Hey Daryl, pass me that soap."

That was when he knew, it was always the goddamn soap. Daddy Dixon was completely on board with the old soap in a sock cliche. Loved it like he loved his Jack, like he loved his whores, like he loved jerking off to violent porn and kicking the neighbour's dog when they weren't looking.

Thing was, Daddy Dixon was also very clever. Daryl had never been his favourite. He'd always called him a "Mama's boy", a "sissy", "a crying pansy ass little bitch". Always felt Daryl was too sensitive, too nervous. Stupid fucking thing was it was his old man that put him on edge, his old man that made him fearful and timid. And his old man's answer? Beat the fear out of him. As if that made sense. Fact was, it didn't beat the fear out of him, it beat it into him time and time again. All it taught him to do was hide it. Be the first to lash out rather than the one to be lashed at.

But the soap, the soap was always the easiest way to turn Daryl into the exact jangle of nerves, crying little bitch that his father said he was, because the soap in his young child mind made him complicit in whatever was going to happen. He helped create the weapon that was used to beat his mother. And that was something Daryl Dixon carried around with him that he'd never told anyone in his life. Didn't think he ever would because once he started thinking about it the guilt was too much. Too crippling. In moments of clarity, he knew that his feelings were unfounded, that he had been a kid and his father hadn't needed an excuse to give him a beating, so defying a simple request like "pass the soap", even though it was loaded with everything that made life in the Dixon home a living hell, would be enough to stop him sitting for days.

But that didn't change the fact that when he passed the soap - "always the new bar Daryl, we don't want the one that's already been in the shower" - it felt like putting a gun in his father's hands and aiming it for him.

The worst bit though, well other than the inevitable beating that would follow when he'd go and huddle in his cupboard a pillow over his ears, was the half smile and the conspirational wink his father would give him as that bar of antibacterial soap passed between them. Sometimes if he was feeling extra sadistic, he'd hold the sock open. Make Daryl push the soap inside. To this day he can't stand to look at Dial in the supermarket, can't stand anything that smells even close to it.

Because he doesn't see soap. He sees guilt. He sees bruises.

Bruises like Beth has all over her arms and neck. And it makes him just a little bit crazier than before.

She's ok though. He thinks at least. She has to be. He has to tell himself she is or he might just lose all his shit and then she won't be ok again.

"What?" she asks.

He doesn't miss how her breath hitches as he tugs at the collar of her robe, nor how her skin prickles as he lays his fingers on her shoulder just below the blackest of the bruises.

"You ok?" he asks.

She nods. "It's just bruises, Daryl, they'll heal."

He doesn't like that phrasing, sounds too much like something his Ma would have said.

He clears his throat, briefly looks into her eyes, big and beautiful and cobalt blue.

"I want to kill him for you again," he says, voice low, gruff, the words indistinct like he's telling her a huge secret.

"He's dead," she says, reaching for his free hand with her own and twining his fingers through hers.

He nods, thumb tracing the edge of the marks. Her skin is soft, softer than last night and he suddenly wants to put his mouth to it. Plant a chain of healing kisses over those brazen bruises, those obscene reminders. He wants to see them disappear like butterflies under his lips, see her skin go pale under his hands. He wishes he had the power to make it all go away, to change everything that's happened to her, to them.

Her hand closes around his wrist and he looks away from her shoulder, her marks, her scars, to her face where her lips are slightly parted and her eyes are almost luminous.

She says his name and steps towards him as his hand slides to the back of her neck, where her skin is cold and damp from her hair.

He wants to kiss her again, like he did last night, wants to feel her lips against his, her tongue in his mouth. Even though he knows it's all kinds of wrong.

He's ok with being wrong.

But then she falters. A brief look to the side, a small bite on her bottom lip. And then she slips her arms around him, under his jacket, against his dirty shirt, fitting her head to his shoulder. He takes a moment with the disappointment before holding her too him, pressing her to his chest, breathing in that clean scent that's anything but Dial, hands splayed on her back. She's tiny, tiny and perfect and even though she's not wearing much, she warms him and he knows he could stand like this forever. And that he could even find that latent religion hidden inside his genes and start thanking a higher power for every second he gets to stay.

"I missed you so much Daryl Dixon," she says against him. "I think I missed you more than you missed me."

He snorts and touches his lips to her hair.

"Ain't no way Beth. Ain't no fucking way."

xxx

"There's coffee," she calls as he emerges from the bathroom later, dripping and cold but clean for what feels like the first time in forever.

He makes a sound in the back of his throat that means yes, thank you and something else he's not sure of all at once.

She's found clothes for him. Dark jeans, some fancy-ass brand he could have never afforded in the old world, a black, long-sleeved vest, and a fleece-lined jacket, which she tells him is called "The Sheep" and he chuckles thinking that at least it's not bell bottoms and platform boots which is what he would have expected from Mr and Mrs '70s Dudebro. Either way, it's better clothes than he's seen in years and they all fit well enough, maybe a little loose, a little baggy. He's thinner than he was before, no more room to store those extra cookies, no more fleshy belly.

She's standing by the window looking across the courtyard into the street when he comes down the stairs.

She's found clothes for herself too. Dark skinny jeans that cling to her, a loose turquoise vest. A grey hoodie lies on the couch, and her bra, wet but still stained with Len's blood is hanging over a cold radiator. He doesn't ask why she didn't raid some of the underwear here. If there's one thing Daryl Dixon knows about women it's that the sizes on those things are confusing as all fuck.

She's set some of the tins on a small side table along with a cup of coffee. Black and bitter and he wonders how she knew how he drinks it.

He sits on the couch eating some of the apples, the condensed milk was too much for him. Except for chocolate chip cookies, he never had much of a sweet tooth, never developed a taste for it on account of his father spending all their money on getting high. All things considered he's surprised he'd ever developed a taste for anything because truth was there never actually was much in the way of food around.

Beth nurses a mug of tea in her hands, looking across the street.

"We need to get that walker stuck in the fence," she tells him.

"Do it later," he puts the apples on a side table. "Come sit here."

He pats the couch and she turns from the window and shifts down next to him.

"You look different with no dirt on," she teases.

He frowns. "Yeah. Drink your tea."

"Should check out the other houses," she says, curling her legs up under her. "See if we can find anything useful. Place seems pretty untouched."

"Yeah," he agrees.

She moves again and he catches sight of her ankle, fading bruises, a slight swell she doesn't even seem to be aware of.

"How is it?" he indicates her foot when she looks confused.

"Oh it's fine. Much better."

He frowns, chewing on his thumb.

She sighs, stretching her leg out and into his lap. "Go on then,"

Her ankle is so delicate that his hand almost goes right around it as he grips it. She wiggles her toes, now bright with some glimmering pink nailpolish and he gives her what he hopes is a mock-annoyed look. Trust Beth Greene to ferret out a pot of nailpolish in a world gone to shit.

It's hilarious but doesn't say anything.

Instead, he's businesslike as he touches it, pulling her foot further into his lap and pushing the jeans up a smidgen so he can see properly, trying not to let his fingertips trail too far up her leg. She's right, it really is much better now. He studies it, moves it gently, presses on it again, two fingers in the hollow above her heel. He chews on his bottom lip, eyes narrowing as he touches her toes. She breathes in sharply and he wants to ask if it hurts, if she can tell whether it's the muscle or the bone or maybe just bruises, if she's had any trouble walking, if she knows she needs to tell him if anything feels different. Bear traps are dangerous and dirty and he doesn't want her to get an infection, even if it's looking ok now, she needs to be careful, she has to be able to run and even the slightest twinge could be a problem and has she thought that maybe she should bandageā€¦

"If I'd known you had a thing about ankles I woulda taken my socks off last night."

Her voice isn't loud but for a moment it's the only sound in the world. She's mainly confident, a slight tease in her tone but even so he can hear a waver in the words and his hands go still on her.

He might have been thinking about the latter part of last night more than he should but he also hasn't forgotten how she cried into his shirt, how she held onto him, rattling and trembling against his chest. Neither has she, but he knows they're both covering now. Not ready to talk about Len and Joe and before and after and the couch and the kisses. It's not quite fake bravado, but it's not genuine either. It's a hint of something that could be, a promise come too early, a glimmer of the future. But it's still not quite right, not quite now. There's a part of him that wishes she'd just forget it, stop bringing it up, part of him rails against anything like the previous night happening again. But again, not very diligently. Regardless his face feels hot and he's sure she can see how ruddy his cheeks have gone.

He glances over at her, trying to keep his expression serious, trying to employ some of that gruffness that's worked for him in the past, but she's smiling and her eyes look almost turquoise and despite himself he feels his mouth quirk up on the one side, a half grin, cautious, maybe even a little sly.

She touches her neck, the skin that was under his lips only a few hours ago. He remembers how he'd half-covered her body with his, how despite all the clothes in the way he'd been able to feel every curve, the gentle press of her small breasts, the heat between her thighs. His face burns hotter and she raises her eyebrows coyly.

She ain't as easy to read as he thought and she could just be faking and pretending. There's a part of him that hopes she is. That she's at least a tiny bit as jangly as he is. A tiny bit as thrown off, a tiny bit as scared.

He pushes her foot out of his lap good-naturedly.

"You can check your own goddamned ankles from now on," he says, picking up his pie apples.

xxx

Four days later he sits on the floor in the chill passageway outside her bedroom, crossbow close to his hand, head against the wall. They're in house number eight, the final house in this bizarre chain of suburban living.

Beth insisted they went through the houses one at a time.

"We're both still bruised and battered," she said, her feet wheedling their way back into his lap, his hand covering her ankles almost automatically despite having pushed her away less than a minute before. "We need to do it one thing at a time."

So they had taken it slow, very slow. Frequently stopping for breaks, moving through a house or two a day, taking note of what was where, what they needed and what the could salvage. Each house had been a bit wacky in its own way. If not the style and the furnishings, then the clothes they'd found or type of food the people kept on their shelves. One was full of books with surreal, Mexican-themed prints on the walls, another looked like the owner had either been a circus performer or a Liberace impersonator with a collection of feather boas all the colours of the rainbow. Beth had laughed out loud when she came across a bunch of hundred dollar bills tightly rolled up inside a plastic hair curler and hidden in a wicker basket under the bed.

He hadn't. Because that's exactly the way his Grandma had hidden her extra cash too, believing that she was about to be robbed by "them scoundrels Merle always hangs around". Come to think of it she was probably right.

But of all the houses - they never went back to the first one - this one makes him the most sad. It's full of doilies and frills and pictures of an old couple surrounded by children and grandchildren. It's a bit Little House on the Prairie, a bit The Waltons, even though it doesn't suit the house at all. Regardless it feels like more of a home than any of the other places so far. There are memories here, deep and wonderful memories, made by people he'll never know, having lives he'll never experience.

It was also the only house harbouring walkers.

They'd tapped on the window outside and waited and when nothing happened he went inside believing it to be empty.

It wasn't.

The smell of rot told him that.

They'd found the previous owners standing in the kitchen, looking into the fading sunset. They were so still and so quiet that he thought they were already dead, that they were like that woman he'd helped Beth cover at the golf club of his nightmares. But they weren't. They snarled as he entered the kitchen, tottering on brittle bones, skin flaking from their faces. He thought they almost looked as if they could be holding hands and once again he wondered if they retained the slightest shadows of memory. That Milton fellow, the Governor's bitch or whatever he was, believed they did. Daryl wasn't sure. And it didn't stop him stabbing them both fast and efficiently, before Beth was even in the room. But it did make him question if they saw, if they felt or if their only desire was all consuming hunger for fresh meat. The last one, he decided. Definitely the last one.

He cleared them out quickly, trying not to let Beth see. The man may not look like Hershel but he was the right age and also had a big bushy beard and he didn't want her eyes filling up with tears.

Even so, he'd been surprised when she said they should stay the night. They'd been sleeping in the second house, the 70s man cave since the first night, but she said they could do with a change and she wanted to stay here. It seemed a strange choice and then he realised that the furnishings probably reminded her of the old farmhouse she grew up in. Probably made her comfortable.

They'd gone to bed at the same time, but as he had done every night so far, the minute he detected her breathing from down the hall, he eased himself off his mattress and moved to sit outside her door. It wasn't planned, wasn't decided on beforehand, but he'd found himself doing it almost out of force of habit. Stand guard over her because he never wanted to let her out of his sight again. Knowing that she's there and safe meant more to him than the few hours of restless sleep he'd get anyway. He guesses that in the old world this would be considered creepy, but it's not the old world any more and he's beyond caring.

It's Beth. It's always been Beth.

He stretches, cracking his neck. The pop is unnaturally loud and it echoes a little. He'd kill for a cigarette, but he smoked his last one two days ago, when they were going through house number five, when the miserable drizzle had let up to give way to just plain freezing, icy cold temperatures.

He doesn't like the cold, never has. Wasn't much of a fan of the heat either but at least he was used to that. But he's wondered often if cold isn't actually the answer to all this. Not that the cold will kill the virus or anything, just that the walkers tend to slow down when the temperature plummets. Last winter some of them even froze to the ground outside the prison and he'd used them for target practice with Michonne. He grins remembering how she couldn't even shoot them when they were absolutely still. Woman was useless with guns, probably worse with a crossbow although he hadn't offered. She didn't get it, never would. Although he's pretty sure katanas aren't his thing either.

Each to their own.

When Michonne eventually did an elegant twirl, more like a dancer than anything else and lopped a head off, they'd chuckled. He feels a small twinge about it now.

(Killing them isn't supposed to be fun)

Beth's right of course. It ain't. But there ain't much fun to be had any more.

He pulls on the strap of the crossbow so that the arrows don't stick into his ass and the metal scrapes loudly across the wooden floor.

He hasn't really given himself time to think, to dwell. He misses his people. Rick, Carl, Michonne, Maggie, Glenn, Carol. Thinking of Carol chokes him up a little and he closes his eyes.

(You gotta stay who you are)

Yeah, but do you? What if you were once a family man, an office drone and then you turned into a psychopath?

What if you were once a sheriff's deputy and you turned into someone who'd shoot your best friend dead over a woman who never really wanted you in the first place?

What if you were once a grieving mother and then you killed innocent people for the greater good?

The betrayal still smarts and he tries to push it away. Feels bad for even thinking it. It ain't about him. It so ain't about him. There's a level on which he gets it, understands it. There's no level on which he likes it. And despite it all he believes that's the same for Carol too. Difference is, there's a shitload of levels between where he could have justified it and where she did.

A shitload.

He'd like to think it would have been different if it was one of them. If it was Glenn or Maggie or Carl. If it was Beth. But that makes him feel worse. And starts bringing up all sorts of moral questions that his Ma would have told him he was clever enough to answer, but he really wasn't. He didn't realise how complicated the apocalypse can make your life. And it sucks all kinds of balls.

"Daryl?"

He looks up. Beth stands in front of him, wiping the sleep from her eyes. Her hair is messy and her sweat pants hang low on her hips.

"What are you doing?" she asks, her voice a little low, a little cracked.

"Nothing."

Frowning, she squats down in front of him and he doesn't want to look at her, her bright hair, the naked flesh of her shoulder where the bruises are fading, the sharp hip and the curve of her waist where her top is ruched up.

She takes his hands in her own. He doesn't mind, doesn't flinch. It's comforting, this familiarity they have. He's found himself touching her a lot lately, more than necessary. A hand on her arm, her shoulder, his knee against hers as they sat on the couches or the floor, while they ate. Every now and then she would hug him too, usually when they'd found something good, like food or warm clothes or shoes in her size. The hugs are brief but not infrequent and he wonders if this is her way of touching him, her way of showing him how she feels without the defiance she displayed that first night. He finds it comforting, it makes some of his rough edges feel smoother and he finds the voices in his head stay quieter. They don't talk about it, this thing between them, they don't ever try and recreate that first night again. He tells himself they ain't that familiar, but the truth is he ain't that confident. And the thought of kissing her again, while terrifying, is never far from his mind. He just hopes that when he touches her she knows what it means. His thigh against hers, his hand on her hip.

"Daryl?" she asks again and, even in the dark with only a little cold moonlight for illumination, he could get lost in her eyes.

"Is this why you've been so tired? Do you do this every night?" she asks and he looks at her feet and those silly pink nails and he wants to ask why she isn't wearing socks, those tatty teddy ones she likes so much because they're thick and thermal.

He nods and wishes he was anywhere and nowhere else at the same time. She wasn't meant to know he kept watch at night, was supposed to think he went to his own bed and stayed there. That was the decent thing to do. The good thing to do. The thing that people like Rick and Glenn would do. This, this here, sitting outside her room while she sleeps because he so damn terrified that she'll be gone when he wakes up. That ain't decent. That's a little crazy and a little messed up and a host of other shit he doesn't want to think about.

"Daryl, you have to sleep," her thumbs ghost across the back of his hands and his fingers tighten around her.

"Yeah," he says. "Yeah."

"I'm serious," she says.

She stands, tugging him with her, pulling him to his bedroom. He grabs the strap of the crossbow as he goes, but she takes it away from him and dumps it on a white painted chest of drawers next to the bed.

"You must be exhausted," she says.

He wants to say he's dead on his feet but that seems inappropriate, so he frowns at her.

"You ain't gonna tuck me in Beth," he tells her as she pushes him towards the bed, with it's brown feather duvet and fleece blanket.

"No, and I ain't gonna read you a bedtime story either," the retort is a little sharper than he expected. "Get in."

It's that voice again. That stern voice of hers. The one that says I might be five foot nothing and weigh 100 pounds soaking wet but I will beat your ass if I have to, so bring it Bitch. Bring it.

He listens. Ain't no help for it. Nothing to be done. So he listens.

And then she walks to the other side of the bed and slides in next to him and it's his turn to ask what she's doing.

She looks at him across the pillows. She's not covered and he can see the curve of her bosom through the thin material of her top. And he feels Merle stirring somewhere in his mind.

"Figured we've done it before, need to stop being so childish about it."

He's about to answer but she's matter-of-fact when she carries on.

"So, you wanna be the big spoon or the little spoon?"

He snorts and she smiles.

"Hope you don't snore Greene," he tells her. "And don't you go stealing the covers."

She nods, mockingly stern - aye aye captain - and he wants to kiss her, but he can already hear Merle starting to laugh, so he lies back instead, concentrating on how he's comfortable for the first time in weeks.

She watches him for a moment as he takes her hand under the covers, and then he sees her eyes slide closed and soon she's breathing heavily. He likes the sound, so close, so intimate and he wonders if he could just lie there all night listening to it.

But he falls asleep minutes later.

And he's the big spoon.

xxx

They stand outside surveying the houses. It's cold and she's wrapped up in at least four layers but she's still stamping her feet.

He doesn't know what they're looking for just that this was brought on when he swore up a motherfucking storm in the cold shower this morning. She'd asked if he knew how to get the gas working and he'd said he could give it a shot because Tyreese had shown him a thing or two when they fixed up the prison. So she'd taken his hand and dragged him outside into the sharp wind, which turned her cheeks blotchy and left frosty droplets in her hair.

She tells him this little complex looks like a Lego village and he nods because he never had Lego as a child and while he understands the principle he doesn't understand the fuss.

That kid Patrick back at the prison seemed to like it though, was always sitting around building spaceships and houses and shit. It makes him wonder if Beth, Maggie and Shawn had Lego when they were kids. If Hershel and Annette sat around watching their group of yours, mine and ours playing with the little brightly coloured blocks on a blanket on the ground. He wonders if little Beth had a big messy ponytail with a braid back then. The idea chokes him up a little, too many reasons to go into, but it makes him sad and happy at the same time.

"Which one?" she asks.

"What do you mean?" he's cold too and he can't feel the tip of his nose. And he really wants to get inside with her again.

"Which one do we stay in? We've been through them all. We know what we need. Now we have to figure out which one to stay in. Otherwise you'll have to fix the gas for them all."

"Yeah, ok." He hasn't really given much thought to staying, not to anything beyond raiding these houses really. Fact was the idea scared him after what happened the last time he suggested they stay somewhere. He doesn't like the idea of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

On the other hand, there's Beth. And the prospect of staying here with her in a real house, with real heat, maybe even some lights if he can hold it all together with chicken wire and good intentions, doesn't seem like an opportunity that's going to come around every day.

"Ok," he says again.

She blows on her hands as the wind whips at her hair. "So which one?"

"Don't matter,"

"It does matter,"

"Which one do you like?"

"I want to pick the right one."

"Beth, it ain't like we got a mortgage. We can move if we don't like it."

"No we can't, it has to be right."

"Ok."

She looks around, eyes wide, brow furrowed, biting her bottom lip, which is already turning purple. He doesn't get why this is so important to her, but it is, so he goes with it and lets her stomp around in the cold, freezing her ass off as she does.

She's hilarious in her own sweet way. Practical and logical, yet utterly breathtaking and ignorant of it all.

"What your favourite colour?" she asks all of a sudden.

He debates saying green just because he knows it will piss her off and she looks so very serious. But he says blue, the colour of her eyes.

"Ok that's number seven."

"What do you mean blue is seven?"

She points to the cerulean flower box and he nods. That's the one with the books and the strange art on the walls. The one that looked like it belonged to a young couple just starting out, although why they'd decided to put down roots here is beyond him.

"Ok, number seven then," she takes a deep breath and suddenly he can tell she's nervous and he smiles because it's kind of endearing.

She walks up the steps to stand on the porch and then turns to look at him, windblown hair framing her face.

And she's beautiful.

"Welcome home Mr Dixon," she says reaching for the doorknob.

"Hey wait," he says coming up behind her and in a moment that he can only imagine later was complete and utter insanity, he slides his arms around her, hoisting her legs up, ignoring the still fresh pain in his shoulder.

She laughs and holds on, linking her arms around his neck.

"What are you doing?" She asks as he carries her into the house and he knows nothing will ever be the same again.

He grins down at her.

"Gotta be right, right?


The quote Daryl couldn't remember was obviously Friedrich Nietzsche's:

"Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you."