They don't talk about it after, but he cries the whole night.
They sleep in a narrow, sparsely decorated bedroom in one of the larger buildings here in Kingdom. The bed is an extra-long twin, clearly intended for one and she thinks it should feel crowded, claustrophobic after all the months they’ve spent sleeping in a double. But it doesn’t feel crowded at all. It’s the opposite— it feels like far too much, somehow. They’ve had so much space for so long that she’d almost forgotten how good he is at making himself as small as possible.
She’s in a borrowed pair of pink striped pajamas, and he’s in just his boxers and the same blue button-down that he’s had on the last two days. He was reluctant to strip down even that much, and she knows what that means: that there is some fresh shame, some new stain somewhere on his back or chest with the paint still wet.
He buries his nose in the crook of her neck and she feels the tears before she hears them. He’s made an art form out of suffering in silence, out of crying so softly that it’s almost unnoticeable and it makes her want to scream. Instead she whispers: every sweet nothing she can come up with, every “I love you” she’s held onto tight since she watched them throw him into that van. He sleeps in fits and starts, gasping and sobbing every time he lurches awake. Whatever nightmare he’s trapped in has him by the spine, has him shaking and convulsing. He doesn’t say a damn word all night. He barely looks at her.
She sings a few quiet lines, the first melody she can dig out from the wreck in her chest. Little boy, six years old, a little too used to being alone. Another new mom and dad, another school, another house that’ll never be home. She kisses him everywhere.
He’s not there when she wakes up in the morning, so she takes her time getting out of bed. The building, she has figured out, is a dormitory— or was, anyway, back when this place used to be a school. The hallway is lined with little identical shoebox rooms and crowded bulletin boards. There’s a communal bathroom, and a big living room with faded couches and an old TV.
Beth borrows a plastic shower caddy and flip-flops from the dark-haired girl two rooms down— the same girl who’d loaned her the pink Victoria’s Secret pajamas that she slept in. It feels like a moment stolen from another life— from the college life she never made it to, from hungover mornings after late nights up giggling about the boys she never dated with the sorority sisters she never got to have. She washes up with candy-scented shower gel and finds herself missing Starbucks and shopping malls.
Daryl finally shows up at breakfast— just plops right down and kisses her on the lips like nothing ever happened. “Well, good morning to you too,” she teases. He flushes a little and looks at his shoes.
“You sleep okay?” he asks.
“Just fine,” she answers. He nods, and she adds, “Where’d you go?”
“Nowhere,” he replies. “Just lookin’ around.”
“I think this used to be a school,” Beth tells him.
“Yeah,” he says. “Seems real fancy.”
She thinks it’s pretty homey, actually. “You try the cobbler yet?” she asks.
He hasn’t, so she holds up her fork to his mouth. He snorts a little, makes some noise about how “you don’t gotta feed me, girl, ain’t you notice you’re off babysittin’ duty today?” But he takes the bite. He gets them two cups of coffee and a plateful of eggs and they share.
The girl two doors down is named Maria. She is twenty and she was a student at UNC Chapel Hill when the world ended. She’s been at Kingdom about a year— trekked north looking for an aunt she never found and found this place instead.
Beth is the only college-aged resident of Alexandria, and while all things considered she isn’t actually that much younger than Rosita or Tara or Maggie, she still feels like the odd one out a lot of the time. So she is positively delighted when Maria asks her to help pick tomatoes in the garden. Finally, another girl who can’t possibly treat her like a kid.
Daryl is down at the archery field— and his whole had face lit up when somebody told him they had an honest-to-goodness real archery field and extra equipment. Beth hopes that it’ll cheer him up enough to talk a little, hopes that holding a bow for the first time in far-too-long will help remind him who he really is. In the meantime, she is happy to make herself useful.
“I grew up on a farm,” Beth explains, plucking a plump red tomato off its vine and dropping it into a wicker basket. “We had so many tomatoes, some years we didn’t know what to do with ‘em. Too many damn tomatoes, my sister always said. One time we even tried makin’ tomato cake.”
“Tomato cake?” Maria asks. “How’d that turn out?”
“Not too bad, actually. But our brother was pretty mad when we tricked him into thinkin’ it was red velvet.”
Maria grins. “I’d never gardened a day in my life before I got here. I grew up in Raleigh.”
Beth can hardly imagine growing up in a big city. “You were in college before, right? Did you like it there?”
“Loved it. I’d wanted to go to Chapel Hill my whole life.”
“What were you studying?”
Beth’s basket of tomatoes is full enough to be almost heavy. She sits down and tilts her head up towards the clear blue sky. “You’re an artist? That’s so cool.”
Maria sits down too, kicks off her shoes and digs her toes into the soil. For a city girl, she’s got this plant-mom thing down pretty pat. “Can’t live without it,” she says. “I got lucky finding this place. The art classrooms still have plenty of supplies.”
Beth nods. “I know just what you mean. I sing. Thought maybe I’d study music.”
It is such a pretty day, and in spite of everything Beth is in a good mood. She’s happy to be outside with the sun on her face and dirt under her feet. She hopes Maggie is outside right now too, sitting in a garden warm and open and bright. She hopes that Hilltop has too many damn tomatoes.
“Maybe we can make tomato cake,” Beth muses, as Maria picks up one of the shiny red fruits and bites into it.
Daryl was supposed to be on the archery field to get some wholesome fresh air and exercise, but instead he gets into a fight. Throws down with some guy named Richard and gives him a nosebleed. King Ezekiel is furious, gathers everyone up on the big green lawn and gives a speech about “civility” and “decorum”. Daryl is fuming at the beginning of it, but by the end he’s just silent and hanging his head.
Beth gets him back to their room after and tries to coax the story out of him. “Did he say something? Do something?”
“He didn’t do nothin’, I’m just an asshole,” Daryl says.
Uh-uh, no, Beth is not having any of that angsty self-depreciating nonsense. “That’s bullshit,” she tells him. She sits next to him on the bed, reaches for his hand. His knuckles are raw, flecked in blood and peeling skin and dirt.
“I know you,” she says. “And I know you’re not an asshole and I know you wouldn’t hit someone without a darn good reason. So what did he do?”
Daryl bites his thumb, hesitates. Then, finally:
“He was gonna use her as bait.”
Beth’s eyebrows knot. “Bait for the Saviors? Use who?”
Oh. Beth feels the all air fall out of her, feels her heart constrict. She throws her arms around him and he just collapses into her and he isn’t quite crying this time but it's just as bad. She rubs his back and hums into his hair and fights the bile that is building on her tongue, the part of her that would very much like to just go punch out this Richard guy her damn self. She holds him until he calms down, until he can lift his head on his own again.
He’s got one of her hands in both of his, and he slips his thumbs under her bracelets to rub at the scar on her wrist. His skin is hot against her pulse.
“I don’t know how I survived,” he says. And Beth wants to storm Negan’s compound and carve out the hearts of every single person who laid a finger on him while he was there.
“You always survive,” she reminds him. He holds her wrist to his lips until she shivers.
Daryl is exhausted and finally manages to really fall asleep, leaving Beth to go get dinner on her own. In the cafeteria she spots Maria sitting at one of the tables with a blond boy around their age. She walks up to them, plastic tray in hand. “Alright if I join?” she asks.
“Of course,” Maria says. She gestures at the boy. “Beth, this is Benjamin. Benjamin, Beth.”
Beth holds a hand out and Benjamin shakes it. “You’re one of the Alexandria group, right? Morgan’s friends?”
“Mm-hmm,” Beth chirps. She takes a bite of her dinner cobbler— she’s not sure what makes it different from breakfast cobbler, exactly, but the poet in her appreciates the semantics. “How about you? Have you lived here a while?”
“Since the beginning,” Benjamin tells her. “Me and my brother.”
“Older or younger?”
“That’s a lot younger.”
“Yeah. I’m in charge of him.”
Beth grins. “I’ve got a big sister, and she thinks she’s in charge of me.”
Benjamin laughs. “I’m sure that’s what Henry would say, too.”
He asks how long she’s been in Alexandria, where she was before that and soon they’re all swapping stories about their wildest walker run-ins and craziest nights. Beth tells them about burning down the moonshine shack, about sleeping in the trunk of a car with a hot older guy barely half a foot away, about the time she and Carl destroyed a grocery store trying to find gummy worms.
Beth is laughing, smiling and she feels like something’s lighter on her shoulders. It’s been more than two years since the world ended, more than two years since she was just a normal high school girl who’s biggest worry was passing the SATs. But now she’s sitting in a school cafeteria once again, talking about clothes and music and boys. Telling stories that should be objectively horrifying, but right now they don’t feel any different from any other drunken teenage mischief. For the first time in a while, she feels like maybe the world hasn’t actually ended yet.
Maria is in the middle of an absolutely insane story about trying to hot-wire a firetruck when she off-handedly mentions bibimbap, and the word pricks Beth’s ears. Glenn always talked about that. Talked about missing his halmeoni and how she made the best Korean bibimbap in Michigan. He tried to make it for her and Maggie and Tara a few times, scrounging up as much soy sauce and sesame oil as he possibly could and using an old ceramic salad bowl in place of a stone cooking pot. He said it wasn’t quite the same.
“Are you Korean?” Beth asks.
“On my mom’s side,” Maria tells her.
“My brother-in-law is, was, too,” Beth says. She trips a little on the words— it still feels wrong to say it, to admit out loud that Glenn is dead. It still doesn’t feel true. “He... Well, he didn’t make it.”
“Do you think you could teach me like a children’s song or something?” she asks. “My sister’s pregnant, and I’d love to be able to sing in Korean for the baby.”
So Maria teaches her a song about a rabbit in the mountains, writing down the lyrics for her in both Korean and English. She draws a cartoon bunny on the bottom of the page, with a speech bubble saying "aegi saranghae"— I love you baby.
Daryl has more nightmares that night, wakes up in a panic at three AM and it takes all of Beth’s strength to keep him from thrashing off the bed. She holds him close, strokes his hair and his face and the collar of the shirt he still won’t take off. He hardly seems to recognize her, he’s so lost in whatever horror he’s seeing that he can’t even respond to his own name. Beth thinks of animals gone feral, of reading The Call of the Wild in seventh grade and worrying for months afterwards that her dogs or her horses might just take off, decide somehow that they’d rather be unbroken out there than safe in here. Daddy told her it didn’t work like that, but he never told her how it did work.
It’s a while before Daryl comes back to his body, back to her, but he does. She feels him soften in her arms, feels him breathe.
“I’m sorry,” he tells her.
“Why?” she asks.
“For keepin’ you up. Keepin’ you here. You should be home with your sis.”
I’m only home when I’m with you, Beth wants to say, but it sticks to her teeth and doesn’t come out. She presses her face to his chest, closes her eyes and breathes him in. He smells like smoke and sweat and gasoline and heaven. She realizes, suddenly, that she can’t remember what her old bedroom smelled like anymore.
This time when she falls asleep, Beth has a nightmare of her own. She dreams of the farm going up in flames, of horses with red blazing manes, of rabbits skinned and trembling and cooked alive. She dreams of Glenn’s bashed-in skull, of Abraham’s blood spraying like rain and Carl’s limbs hacked into pieces and Maggie’s tortured screams. She is running through fire and branches and bodies and she can’t tell one from the other. Andrea’s gun goes off, and the bullet speeds towards Daryl’s head.
First thing in the morning, Beth marches right up to Morgan in his gazebo and demands that he tell her where Carol is. He tries really hard to not answer, but Beth makes a solid case about how helping Daryl is for the greater good and eventually he gives in. It’s an hour hike, and when Beth arrives at the cottage she is dehydrated and angry. She bangs on the door until Carol opens up, looking at her like she’s seen a ghost.
During the walk over Beth had thought up a big impassioned speech and she’d planned to just spit the whole thing out at Carol’s feet right away. But the second she sees the older woman’s face, all her anger disappears. Carol seems pale and tired and grayer than ever before and Beth hugs her so tight it almost hurts.
Inside Carol gets her a glass of water and they sit on the couch. The fireplace is full of candles and Beth watches the flames dance, watches the wax drip and bubble and weep.
Carol speaks first: “Are you trading with Kingdom?”
Beth’s mouth is so dry that she has to take a sip of water before she can even say anything. “Yes. Jesus introduced us.”
“How’d you know I was—“
“Morgan told me. Well, he told Rick and Daryl.”
Carol’s shoulders slump a little at his name. “I didn’t... Daryl—“
“He thinks you don’t want to see him,” Beth says, her voice rising as the anger finds its way to the surface again. “How could you do this to him?”
Carol stares at the fireplace. “He doesn’t need me.”
Need? “What’s need gotta do with anything?” Beth snaps. “He doesn’t need anybody, doesn’t mean it don’t hurt him when people leave.”
“He thinks you left because of him,” she continues. “Thinks you’re tired of him, or you’re mad or you blame him for what happened at the outpost or something.”
“That’s not why.”
“Then what is it?”
Carol’s eyes are orange from the blaze. “I couldn’t lose anyone,” she says. “Couldn’t lose any of you. Couldn’t lose him. Couldn’t kill them.”
“If they hurt any of our people, any more of them, that’s what I’d do. And there wouldn’t be anything left of me after that.”
Beth could swear she feels the temperature of the room drop a full ten degrees, could swear she’s cold even as she watches the candles lick the air. She remembers the barn catching fire— remembers the barn full of corpses, remembers all hell breaking lose. Carol screaming, and Daryl the only one strong enough to tether her to the ground.
“The Saviors,” Carol asks, “did they come?”
No one had held Beth to the ground that day. They pulled her off and away from her mother’s rotting flesh, but nobody even noticed the part of her that coiled up like smoke into the sky and didn’t come back down. “Yeah.”
“Did anyone get hurt? Is everybody okay? Did the Saviors...”
No one had held Daryl, either. “They came,” Beth says. “But we got them all. Everyone’s okay. We’re all okay.”
Carol makes a noise something like a sob, presses a hand against her face and shuts her eyes for just a moment. Beth’s pretty sure she wipes a tear away. “Good,” she says, “good,” and Beth tries but she can't remember Carol’s daughter’s name.
Carol feeds her lunch, packs her some fruit and a fresh bottle of water for the return trip. They hug again on the porch, and when Beth pulls away Carol smiles softly at her.
"He does need someone, you know," she says. "He needs you."
Beth feels all the blood rush to her face. “I, I mean—“
“It’s okay to need people sometimes,” Carol tells her, “we all do,” and Beth doesn’t know what she wants to say but she feels something clumping up deep in her throat.
“Tell him to visit me soon, okay?” Carol asks, and Beth nods, gives her one last quick hug goodbye and starts on the trail back to Kingdom. It isn’t until she sees the gates that she figures out what it was she’d wanted to say:
It’s not your fault. None of it is. There’s nothing here that’s on you.
Beth finds Daryl sitting peacefully with the tiger—and wow, is that a sentence that really shouldn’t make any sense but here they are. He looks up at her and nods. "Hey."
Beth sits down next him. “Hi.” She smiles at him and he smiles back— it's small and cautious but it’s there. “You been sittin’ here a while?”
“I’unno, not too long,” he says. “I’m thinkin’ we should get a pet. Lion, maybe. Or a giraffe.”
He says it so deadpan that it takes Beth a few seconds to realize he’s teasing. She rolls her eyes at him, leans in and kisses his lips. He tastes vaguely like cat.
“You have been here a while,” she says.
He lets out a low chuckle, wraps an arm around her. She closes her eyes and lays her head on his shoulder.
“I got a confession,” she says.
“I went to see Carol.”
Daryl’s fingers move in circles over the skin of her arms. “Yeah, I know.”
Beth's eyes snap open. “You know? How?”
Tattletale. “Hey, listen, I didn’t mean to go behind your back, okay?”
“I just thought... I thought maybe I could...”
“Daryl, she wasn’t trying to hurt you. She just couldn’t do it anymore. Couldn’t handle having anymore death on her hands.”
“And she said to tell you to go see her, she wants to see you, it’s really got nothing to do with you and—“
“Beth,” he interrupts. “It’s okay. I’m okay. Really.”
He’s okay. She feels the sudden relief of it, all of the knots in her chest coming undone. We’re going to be okay.
“Will you tell me about it?” she asks. “When you’re ready? I don’t want you to have to carry this alone.”
He cups her face in his hand, pulls her eyes to his and looks at her— really looks at her, for the first time since they got him back. He traces the scar on her cheek, the one above her eyebrow and then the one a little higher on her temple, the one that curves against the ridges of her skull and disappears under her hair. He kisses her deep enough to leave a hole.
“I love you,” she says.
He smirks. “I know.”
She’s half-laughing as he tugs her back into him, kisses her cheek and her neck and her collarbones. Her holds her against his chest and notches her head beneath his chin. “I love you too,” he says.
They stay like that for a while, until finally Beth says, “I didn’t tell her. About the Saviors. About Abraham and Glenn and... And what they did to you. I figured it wasn’t mine to tell.”
Daryl nods, twirls the ends of her hair. The tiger makes a noise that Beth is pretty sure is a contented purr.
“Let’s leave tomorrow,” he says. “Head back to Hilltop in the mornin’.”
“Okay,” Beth replies. And she’s tired from all of the walking she did today, so she lets herself curl up against his side and rest there.
Beth finally manages to get him out of his shirt that night. She undoes all his buttons one-by-one and takes stock of all of the bruises— blotched ink spread across his shoulders and his stomach and between his ribs, murky and dark and every color imaginable.
He winces when she touches them, sucks in air through his teeth. “Does it hurt?” she asks.
That's a lie. It hurts a lot more than kinda. “Oh, Daryl.”
“S’okay,” he says. “Won’t leave a scar.”
That’s not the same thing as being okay. Beth traces the lines of every mark and shadow on his bare chest. She finds his tattoo, the jut of his shoulder blades and the dip in his spine. It was a long time before he let her touch him there.
“You’re beautiful,” she says.
He snorts. “S’funny word for ‘old and ugly’.”
“Oh, hush,” she chides. “You’re gorgeous. And it don’t matter how many scars you got. Don’t matter what anyone else did to you.”
Daryl’s eyes are soft. His fingers wander to her hipbone, to the skin under her shirt. “Ain’t as pretty as you.”
She is suddenly white-hot with need for him. She whips her shirt over her head, presses her bare skin flush against his. Kisses him. Lets him warm her from the inside out. Of all the things that burn, she thinks, he is the best one.
This time when she sings him to sleep, she tastes the sun in every note.