He’s sure he’s dreaming. Same as it always is, in the hours since she’s been gone. Hours that stretch on into larger blocks of time he can’t even consider. He has been here before, those rare times he’s given in and slept in this bed. She ain’t ever far from his mind but she’s closest at night. Closer, when he relaxes enough to fall into the sort of deep sleep that lets her in. When everything’s quiet in the wee hours of morning before he wakes, before reality crashes in to fill his days with an emptiness that tastes of gunpowder and ashes—that’s when he feels her the most.
Even asleep, he knows the danger in this, in indulging the fantasy because it’s only going to make the truth sting that much more when he wakes. Make it burn that much deeper. But he digs into it anyway, presses his face into the back of her warm neck. Pulls her body closer, feels the steady beat of her heart beneath his palm, and wonders if it would have been like this. If they would have fit like this, two pieces of a puzzle here in the place where reality don’t reach, if they only had the time to find out. She feels so fucking good he can’t bear to open his eyes and face the truth that awaits him.
She makes a little noise. Soft like water lapping at the banks of a stream, and he wants to fall into it and never come up for air. He presses closer, breathes deep, a scent of—
She smells terrible. Dirt and decay and layers of sweat. Blood and pinesap and something vaguely skunk-like. The unmistakable reek of unwashed human he knows all too well. His next breath shakes on the way in, and it’s still there, it hasn’t gone away, that stink that permeates everything now that he’s aware of it.
Daryl doesn’t pretend to know much. These days it seems what he does know dwindles down by the hour, the more time he spends away. Spends lingering in the depths of his own head where he can almost remember the shape of her smile. The sound of her voice. But he knows this. Knows it better than he wants to know it.
When he dreams of Beth, she smells of grape jelly and peanut butter. Candle wax and a hint of matches. Moonshine and smoke. If music, if pianos and the lilt of her voice had a scent she’d smell like that, too, something like fresh linen and the woods after a summer rainstorm.
But she never smells like this.
He knows what he remembers. The part of the dream that happened before this, where she came to him in the middle of the night, like a little ghost flitting onto the porch and deciding to stay. Her words, her story of survival, he remembers that, too, and it’s both painfully real and too fucking unlikely but—but that smell, Christ, that smell is real. It’s god-fucking-awful but he can’t stop breathing it in, pressing his whole face into the back of a grimy neck that can’t possibly exist on the same plane as he.
He’s gonna open his eyes and she’ll be gone. She’ll be just as dead as she was when he fell asleep, she won’t have come back to him after all, and this is just the newest level of low his brain has struck. Serves him right for giving in, for lying down in comfort when Beth Greene ain’t ever gonna rest in peace.
Another little moan, a mumbled word, and then, “Daryl?”
Her voice is sleepy and thick and not at all the sweet lyric he’s expecting. The way even her words sound of song when they ring around his brain. He holds her tighter, squeezing his eyes shut until they hurt, until his whole face distorts with it.
She’s moving. Turning over. Wriggling around the way the ghost never does. Not the fluid motions of the ethereal woman in his head, but the uncoordinated flopping of something—somebody—with elbows that land in stomachs and knees that come dangerously close to where he’s hard and aching in his jeans.
Her breath is as bad as the rest of her, but he breathes that in, too. Lets it wash over his face like it were the sweetest of breezes, a meadow full of wildflowers in all shades of yellow, fragrant on a summer’s night. But he can’t—he won’t—open his eyes.
The moment he does, she’ll be gone.
Less sleepy this time, more insistent. More Beth, and he doesn’t know how much more of this he can take.
Fingertips on his face, marking a path along the bridge of his nose, across his brow. Swiping over his cheekbones and down along his jaw. Sharp little nails, scratching divinely through the scruff on his chin. His little ghost don’t play fair and before he can stop himself, he flattens his palm at her lower back and presses his erection into her stomach and shudders when her breathy little whimper floats through the sliver of space between him.
His eyes pop open, he doesn’t mean to let them, but— but—
She’s still there.
Hair in tangles. Angry pink scars across her forehead and cheek. So much dirt on her face she’s at least three shades darker than she ought to be. And the stench of her, Christ. She’s a fucking mess, but she’s—she’s—
He can’t say it, not even in his head. Can only gaze at her through the haze of tears as it sinks in, trickling slow like molasses.
This ain’t no dream, and Beth—Beth is here. She’s here, still touching his face, her blue eyes so wide as she gazes back at him.
“You feel awake to me,” she says, just like she did last night on the porch, and that’s all it takes.
He buries his face into her neck and cries like a fucking baby, cries like he cried that day—that day he ain’t ever gonna forget no matter that she’s back—but she’s back, she’s here, and he doesn’t care that he’s crying. Doesn’t care that he’s soaking both of them and the pillow and everything else with a flood of tears. The only thing that matters is Beth and her arms holding him to her, her fingers stroking slow, slow, slow through his hair. Her sweet voice, singing softly, something like a lullaby as he weeps.
Feels like hours before he can breathe without sobbing, and his head aches, his throat aches, everything aches but it’s the sweetest ache he ever knew. When he pulls his face from her stinky, sweaty neck, her thumbs come up to swipe the remnants of the tears away, and he sees the tracks of hers making furrows in the dirt on her face.
She presses her fingertips to his lips to silence his apology, shaking her head as she does so. “No, Daryl. No.”
So he doesn’t say it, not again, though every cell in his body feels it. Sorry, for breaking down like this. Sorry, for everything he did and everything he didn’t do. For all she went through and everything still to come. He already knew she was strong and her death never changed that knowledge in his heart, but the kinda strength it took getting here, to come back from the dead, back to herself, back to him, all the way from Georgia on her own—that, he don’t have the words for it. He can’t even see where it ends, the strength she carries inside, and never will.
For a long time they lie together in this little bed, the bed that’s technically his, the one given to her to use in his absence. The one they spent the night in together like they were always meant to all along. The bed that’s shifted from mine to hers to ours in his head. There’s just enough space between them on the pillow to see her clearly, her one blue eye open wide while the other’s half-squished into the foam beneath her. Her fingers touch his face and his touch hers and he never wants to leave this little nest of pillows and sheets.
She really does stink, though.
Only when she giggles does he realize he says that out loud, but after a split second in which his heart constricts like it’s being squeezed in somebody’s fist, he sees she ain’t mad and he laughs, too. The sound is bizarre from his lips, rusty and unused, but he feels it like a helium balloon in his chest. A weight lifting a bit at a time from shoulders more burdened than he cares to notice.
“I’m sure it’s terrible,” she says, wrinkling her nose up as her eyes drift to the dirt caked beneath her fingernails, ground into every wrinkle and pore in her skin.
“Got a shower,” he says, wondering why nobody thought to avail her of it yesterday. “Hot water ‘n everything.”
He doesn’t imagine the way her eyes brighten at that, but he’s sure he is imagining things seconds later when she slides her hand into his and says, “Come with me?”
But no, he isn’t. Not then, as she says the words, a splash of pink barely visible through the dirt on her cheeks. Not after, when he’s nodding at her, yes, he’ll go with her. The house is still and it’s barely light outside as he and Beth leave their room to head for the upstairs bathroom. He notes with some degree of pride how little noise she makes. She might not be a ghost, not anymore, but she’s as silent as one as they ascend the stairs and tread down the hallway, past the closed doors where the rest of the household sleeps.
They don’t bother with the lights in the bathroom. There’s enough, even this early in the day, coming through the window to brighten the space so they can see. Daryl shuts the door behind them and a beat passes, a breath of air that catches in his chest, a pulse of anticipation, and then Beth’s shedding her clothes, one stiff, filthy layer at a time. If it bothers her, the thought of undressing in front of him, she doesn’t show it, and before she’s halfway done Daryl starts to pull his own layers, off, too, allowing them to fall to the floor in a pile with hers.
He doesn’t know whether she’s aware of the scars already or if this will be her introduction to them, but for the first time in his life their presence at his back ceases to matter. Well, it matters, it does, and he knows Beth would say so. But Beth matters more, and maybe not all of her scars are as visible, but he knows they run deep. They’re both marked now, and he can’t be ashamed. You got out. So did she. His shirts come off as easy as the rest of it and then it’s just him and her and a foot and a half of space between them.
Beneath the clothing she’s just as dirty, bruised and scraped all over. Beth was always slight but she’s skinny now, every rib visible, hipbones jutting out like sharp-edged scoops. But there’s muscle, there, too, in her arms, her shoulders, her legs. Strength. She’s lean but she ain’t wasting away no matter that she fought her way here from Atlanta. Woman’s a fucking survivor in more ways he can count. It’s difficult to pull his gaze from her but he does, brushing past her to turn the water on. He twists the knob as hot as it’ll go and already the steam starts to rise around them. In all his time here, he’s never come close to using his allotment of hot water so he figures he can be greedy, even just this once.
He takes her hand to guide her in, and after a couple of seconds, she steps beneath the spray. It’s hot, but not scalding, and he feels it in little speckles on his chest as he stands behind her while she lets the water course over her, eyes shut, face tipped up into the stream of it. He watches her, sees the bliss on her face, sees the way the furrow of her brow finally smoothes out and his heart beats a little faster behind his ribs at the sight of her.
When she steps backward, he’s not expecting it, but the length her body fits once again like a puzzle piece against his and before he can think he drops his face into her shoulder, wraps his arms around her middle. She’s trembling, just a little, but she lays her arms over top of his and presses in hard, goes unresisting when he steps the both of them forward beneath the spray of water. They stand like this for a long time. Hours could pass and he wouldn’t tire of holding her, of the water-warmed heat of her, of the slick slide of her back against his chest as she takes deep, steady breaths. He’s hard and he knows she feels it. He ain’t trying to hide it, even if he thought he could, but there’s nothing urgent in it. It’s there, it’s hers, and that’s all it’s gotta be.
The water won’t last forever, even though he plans on using the entire household’s ration for today. He unwinds one arm from around her middle and reaches for the bottles stacked in a row on the little shelf built into the shower wall. None of them face outward so he must turn them all until he finds the one he wants, and it’s some sorta floral scented thing he thinks Carl uses ‘cause that girl likes it or whatever, but he figures it’ll suit Beth well enough. He never washed nobody’s hair before except for his own, but then he never took a shower with a woman before either and he’s doing that well enough.
Beth knows what he’s up to and she doesn’t bother attempting to untangle the band from her hair, just pulls until it snaps and lets it fall to the floor of the shower. Amidst the sticks and dirt and blood and sap and debris are a single tiny braid and about a million tangles. She’ll probably need to cut it or maybe he’ll spend a couple of hours untangling it for her, so she don’t have to, working each of them free so her hair can fall smooth and golden down her back. As it does in his dreams, though he wouldn’t trade one for the other. He’s already decided he’s gonna, if she wants him to, no matter how long it takes to do it.
The shampoo is purple and thick and shimmery as he squirts it into his palm. Beth tips her head back and lets out a low sound in her throat as he starts working it into her hair. It takes a bit to get down to her scalp, through all the tangles and crap she’s got caught there. And he wants to scratch like he’s sure she needs, sure she wants, but he can’t, not until—his fingers find the place, the little pucker where her hair don’t grow, a soft little pit in the firmness of her skull. Exit, his brain provides. Where the bullet came out but Beth stayed in, and he both loves that scar and wants to bury it, fill it in, cover it over until it ceases to exist.
Beth does exist, though, and after a moment of letting him touch, she gently nudges his fingers with the top of her head. He does what he wanted to do all along, scratches his nails into her scalp while working the fragrant suds in, and that little noise Beth makes rises up above the patter of the water against the tub. Starts as a low rumbling he’s not certain how she could possibly be making, and something flutters in his belly in response. It rises, a crescendo that breaks as she moans long and loud and he imagines other ways he might coax her into making these noises, but like the erection trapped between them, the daydreams make no attempt to take hold. He lets them roll on in the background while he tends to Beth.
Beneath them, the water swirls dark, muddy, as it sinks into the drain. The suds have gone from shimmery purple to looking like dark chocolate mousse. He checks that her eyes are shut tight and guides her head beneath the spray to rinse, then starts again. A new handful, fresh suds, same honest sounds of enjoyment from Beth as he uses his fingers to help her get clean. She whimpers as he rubs the suds into the back of her head and he can feel the tightness in her neck, the roll of knotted muscles all the way up the base of her skull. Adds that to the list of things he’ll do for her later, if she wants. The way she sighs as he slides his thumbs up the back of her neck suggests that she will.
The rest of her hair hangs down her back in a dark blonde clump still clinging to the shape of her ponytail. His fingers catch as he works the shampoo in and no matter how careful he tries to be he knows it pulls, knows it hurts with every little grunt she makes. But she reaches back, glides her thumb in little circles on the outside of his thigh and he keeps on trying to be gentle and she keeps on being strong.
It takes a four more repetitions before the suds stay white, before he’s scrubbed and rubbed and worked out all the dirt that’s gonna go. Her scalp shines pink and clean through where her hair parts in a jagged line at the top of her head and he’s just starting to eye up that bar of soap when Beth reaches for another bottle from the shelf. Says conditioner on it and he knows the women use it, don’t know what for, but he figures it out good and quick when he’s got the stuff worked in and the strands of hair glide between his fingers instead of always catching and pulling.
Beth pushes the two of them back out of the spray, leans her slippery head against his shoulder and tips up until he can see her eyes, hovering half open as she gazes at him.
“Gotta let it sit,” she says, in a soft little voice that almost sounds sleepy. “Lemme wash yours?”
Wasn’t expecting that, but at the same time, feels as though she was always gonna ask. “All right, Beth.”
She doesn’t pick the flowery one. Reaches instead for a dark coloured bottle and pulls gently out of his arms. Turns, takes him by the shoulders and guides him beneath the water. He tips his head back, gets his hair good and wet for her. Hears the click of the bottle opening and a vaguely spicy scent wafts up to him on the steam, then Beth’s arms form brackets on either side of his head as her fingers work the shampoo into his hair.
He groans, like she did, tips his head forward so she can reach better. She’s close, though, close enough that no matter how she stands his erection brushes against her belly. He feels it and sees it as he cracks his eyes open, looks down at the lack of space between them, lack of clothing, the two pairs of naked feet standing together amongst the suds.
Her nails are like magic on his scalp, and much like she did, he doesn’t hold back the sounds that want out in response as she washes his hair. It’s the other things, too, making him moan. The side of her belly on his cock, the points of her nipples on his chest whenever she leans closer. He’d be lying if he tried to say he wasn’t thinking about all of that, and it still ain’t urgent but it sure as hell feels good, having her here. So much of her touching so much of him, and warmth like the steam curls in his belly.
When she finishes with him, Beth rinses her hair and he helps her do it, noting again how that conditioner stuff helped with the tangles. And that’s good, real good, but what’s better is the little smile Beth wears as he combs his fingers through her hair.
The bar of soap on the shelf behind her draws his eyes again. A lot of the dirt came off her from all the hair washing but she’s far from clean, and he’s preparing to place the bar into her hands, when Beth reaches for it instead and slips it into his.
He’s a little lightheaded as she looks at him with those wide open eyes and whispers, “Please, Daryl?”
She could do it herself, but this ain’t about that. She can take care of herself but maybe she don’t always have to. Maybe she wants to know that, wants to feel it, that she can have this, too, if she needs it. He ain’t ever done this, either, but when the first swipe of his soapy thumbs through the dirt on her face makes her little smile stretch wider, he knows that don’t matter. He cleans the dirt from her face, watching as the smile slides from wide into blissful, sighing with her when she tosses her head back so his fingers can scrub away the sweat and grime from her neck. Her skin shines clean and pink, when he’s done, and Beth turns around, once again fitting herself against him back to front. Daryl tucks his face into her hair, into her freshly cleaned neck, so he can wash the rest of her.
Despite the grit, the scratches, the scars he’s sure weren’t there before, Beth’s skin is amazingly smooth and warm beneath his palms. He slides them down her arms, over the taut muscles gathered there. The strength of her hums into his skin, and he wonders, if it had been him, left behind—left for dead—would he have made it? Would he be standing here now?
His fingers glide between hers, slick, soapy digits moving together to clean away the dirt, and Beth lets out a little giggle. Soft, barely any weight to it at all, but the sound echoes in the confines of the shower, is picked up by the steam and amplified, ‘til his ears are full of it. That little sound of delight, laced with something else altogether which rushes another surge of blood south to his cock. Now he’s hard as fuck and kind of dizzy but it’s okay. It’s good, and he suspects she ain’t so immune to this either, as she giggles softly again and turns her head to lay it against his shoulder.
When her hands are clean, he retraces his motions back up her arm, swirling through the suds to rinse her clean, until he reaches her shoulders. Beth breathes deep as he traces her collarbones, first with the soap, then again with his fingers. Starts letting it out in shuddering little puffs as he slides his hands down to cover her breasts, the little swells of them fitting perfectly in his palms. Her nipples pull even tighter beneath his touch, and she whispers his name and arches her back.
“Beth,” he answers, tucking his face into her shoulder again as he touches her, taking the invitation as he knows she intends, flicks his thumbs gently over the hardened points and fights the urge to press his cock against her ass even though she’s doing a good job of pushing herself back into him.
Still ain’t about that, no matter how he’s touching her. How she wants him to touch her. She whimpers a little, though, when he moves on, and there’s a trembling in her belly beneath his hands as he washes her there, too, circling lower and lower until his fingertips graze the border of her curls. He only realizes he’s closed his eyes when they pop open, and he can’t even hear the shower anymore, just Beth’s deep breaths. Daryl stares down at his hands and where they sit, sees the way her chest rises and falls, watches as she slides her legs apart and pushes his hand between them.
Even with the soap, he can feel how wet she is. As wet as he is hard and it hits him now, finally, the need for her that’s been hovering just beyond the curtain. He wants to press her up against the wall of the shower and slide into her from behind, into that slick heat coating his fingers, but he doesn’t, ‘cause he might want her with a level of desperation he’s never felt before but he hasn’t quite lost all of his self-control. Beth’s little sigh holds a note of laughter to it, like she knows what he’s thinking, but it’s enough to pull him back from that edge just a little. He’s meant to be washing her, and he does, soapy fingers mixing with the wetness of her as he slides them around. Beth makes little gasping sounds as he washes, as he touches and explores her with gentle fingertips, and she’s already trembling long before his thumb glides over her clit.
“Ohhh,” she says, the sound mostly breath.
Daryl pulls his face from her shoulder, slides the point of his nose up along her neck until his lips hover just behind her ear. “Tell me what you want, Beth.”
The way she whimpers makes him think she wants a lotta things, but she turns her head so her face tucks up into his neck and says, “Just for a minute? Feels so good, Daryl.”
They’re dealing with a limited amount of time, and already the water’s noticeably cooler than when they started. Beth knows that, even though she asks, and he’s not going to waste time by denying her.
This ain’t something he’s practiced at, but he suspects he doesn’t need to be. Beth arches her back, pushes herself into his touch, and gasps again when he repeats the same gliding pass of his thumb across the swollen nub of her clit. He makes a circle and she moans softly into his neck and they both shiver.
“Like that?” he asks.
“Harder,” she whispers, sliding her hand over top of his and pushing down, making herself shudder in the process. “Not gonna break me.”
He does push against her ass, this time, the gravel in her voice taking him by surprise. Can’t help it, but through his rapid spiral into light-headedness he knows she doesn’t mind. Knows the desperation he feels isn’t at all one-sided, and he makes another circle, harder like she showed him. Beth whimpers and reaches back to grip his thigh, nails digging in a little bit more with each pass he makes. She’s unbelievably wet and so fucking hot, he had no idea—and he’s done this before, technically, done things, but this feels like the first fucking time.
First time that matters, even if all he does for the rest of his life is touch her like this. Draw out of her those little sighs. A different type of music but it strikes up an orchestra in his chest, a soundtrack he’s never gonna tire of hearing, of feeling. Beth’s breath washes over his neck and he feels it more tangibly than the steam, than the water around them. It isn’t long before she lets out a moan so deep he feels it rising up from her belly beneath his palm, long before it swells out into the air around them. And then she’s biting at his neck, teeth sinking in as her body gives a hard shudder and doesn’t stop. Though it’s muffled into his neck, the song she sings as she comes is the sweetest sound he’s ever heard.
When her body stops shaking, Beth collapses back against him, melting further into his arms. Daryl presses a kiss into her hair, tightens his arms around her as she breathes out his name, just holds her for a long time beneath the slowly cooling water.
It’s some time before Beth speaks. First whispering his name again, then nudging at his neck with the point of her nose. “C’mon,” she says.
He finishes washing her, front and back, getting to his knees on the floor of the shower to scrub the dirt from her feet as she leans back against the wall, a sleepy grin stretched across her face. He’s not surprised when she wants to wash him, too, even though her fingers shake and he can see she’s exhausted. He stops her, though Christ, he doesn’t want to, when those same shaky fingers close around his cock.
“Later,” he says to her, because yeah, he wants that. Wants it if she does. But she’s fading; he can see it, in the wilt of her shoulders, the tremble in her legs, the droop of her eyes.
Woman needs a nap a hell of a lot more than he needs to get off, and she nods her understanding at him. After a couple of slow strokes which nonetheless leave him shaking and breathless, she releases him and they rinse away the remnants of soap just as the last of the warmth bleeds out of the water.
They’ve been in there awhile, but it’s still early. Sun’s up in earnest now, though, and the bathroom is bright, the white of it near glowing. Beth glows, too, freshly scrubbed skin still pink, and she’s exhausted and beautiful and after they both brush their teeth, he wraps her up in the fluffiest towel he can find, scoops her into his arms, and carries her back to bed.
Beth lays her head on his chest and sighs sleepily. Doesn’t occur to him until he’s halfway down the stairs that he’s still naked. That he hasn’t even bothered with a towel and he prays to whatever deity might be listening that nobody else in the house is awake. But he reaches their room undetected. Shuts the door on the world for a second time, sets Beth down on top of the quilt, on the clean side, and leaves her there just long enough to pull a spare blanket from the closet. She has already dropped the towel to the floor by the time he returns, and he drapes the blanket over her and slides under it, too, gathering her to his chest even as she wiggles back against him.
“Sleep,” he says to her, pressing his face into her neck and breathing her in again, clean and soapy and Beth. “Sleep.”
And she does.