"You think the Governor's gone for good?"
It'd been some time since Rick had even mentioned the man. The question itself made Daryl turn back and look at Rick for a quick moment before turning back to the rough trail they'd been walking through. Pushing the question to the side of his mind for a moment, he focused on the cleared strip of mucked-up clay in front of him, studying the mud and ferns and the rocks for any signs they'd been disturbed recently. So far, only a few scattered tracks, a couple walkers, but mostly just coyotes, rabbits and a couple of small-sized deer picking their way across the partially blazed trail. No signs of any herds or any people. Just them, the woods, and the left behind tracks.
The two of them were out in the woods, checking the snares they'd set up a couple of days ago. Daryl was keeping a lookout, and Rick was a few feet behind him, knife and gun on his hip, as he worked some tangles out of the string. "Haven't heard from him," Daryl finally replied, studying the fresh coyote prints that were pressed into the mud ahead of him.
"You know what I mean." There was the crunch of twigs and gravel underfoot as Rick caught up to Daryl, and they were off again, walking further into the woods, the hulking mass of the prison at their backs, no longer visible through the scattering of trees. Daryl didn't reply. Didn't want to.
"Michonne was saying she was thinking about sticking around for a while. Not going out looking," Rick offered after a couple of paces.
Daryl rotated his arm, trying to crack the sticking bones in his shoulder while buying himself a bit of time to think. Nothing cracked through, and he dropped his arm with a tired curse. "Probably time she gave it up. Trail's cold." He took another quick look at Rick. The man had been quiet for the last few days, and now he was frowning as he looked around at their trail, kicking rocks out of the way and stomping on the ferns in the path to get them dead and out of the way of the path. Ever since that night, when Rick had been watching Beth walking away with the baby with that sad, angry look carved into his face, Daryl had sensed that something wasn't sitting right with Rick. Seeing Beth and Judy had always filled Daryl up with something warm, something nice. Struck him as strange that a sight like that was anything other than right, in anybody's eyes. Maybe seeing his little girl in some other woman's arms was hard, though, same way it was hard to watch Carl with the gun on his hip and hear the kid running his mouth like he did.
"We've been acting like he's gone." Rick's drawl was quiet, but it filled up the woods all the same.
Daryl nodded, flexing his shoulder again and dropping his arm after one last rotation made his bones snap and slide into place. His shoulder had been burning for more than half a week now, ever since just after going out to that abandoned restaurant, fighting through that group of walkers, and having to put that kid down. Cracking it had relieved some of the tension, but it still ached, so he adjusted the strap of his bow.
The way Rick was talking had Daryl thinking back to his conversation with Michonne at that restaurant, the constant alertness and waiting. "Can't do shit if he don't want to be found." Turned to look back at Rick, who was holding onto the sack of rabbits, meeting the man's eyes. "Know we could use her help around here. Got enough going on here," he added, thinking about those mice they'd found in the pantry, about how they still hadn't found another place for a big run. Still hadn't gone back to that restaurant.
Rick ran a hand through his hair, jerking his chin down in some sort of acceptance, and they lapsed into silence.
They veered off the trail after fifteen minutes or so, and Daryl kneeled down to handle the next snare they came across. This was one of the wire ones they'd tried putting together based on some advice from a stack of old hunting guides from the fifties they'd found in some moldy corner of the library. It was a waste, the wire loop busted open on the dirt and surrounded by a scattering of frantic tracks. Studying the tracks for a moment, looking at how deep into the mud they were and how long the back feet seemed to be, he could guess the rabbit had been a damn big one. Frustrated, he balled the wire up and shoved it into his pocket. "Not worth the fuckin' trouble," he grumbled, standing and hooking his thumb back under the strap of his crossbow. Took off ahead of Rick again, the coyote tracks having already disappeared into the denser foliage to his left.
The last handful of snares had been set up the same way, with twisted up twenty-two and twenty-four gauge wire. Most of them hadn't even been touched, but the two that had been tripped were broken apart, too. Useless. Daryl looked around the forest as he carefully rolled the last of the wire up, wrapping it around his palm in methodic motions. Smoothing the wire between his fingers as his hand rose and fell in smooth, slow circles. Everything was silent, just the occasional soft rustle of a squirrel above them or a bird hopping from branch to branch.
"Looks like a couple of rabbits got lucky," Rick commented as Daryl got to his feet, wrapping the end of the wire around itself to keep it all from all unraveling.
"Nah." Daryl muttered. "The fuckers know better now. Learned to keep away." He shoved the wire into his jacket pocket with the rest of the wire he'd collected. Find some other use for it, maybe try to set up some trip wires out here or use it to patch up the fence. Maybe get to work on rigging up a chicken coop, or something. They sure weren't going to bother with making snares like this again. Waste of fucking time, if this was anything to go off of.
They were almost back to the prison when Rick spoke up again. "I'm sick of looking over my shoulder for that asshole." Rick's voice sounded a little hoarse, and Daryl tightened his hand around the crossbow strap. The Governor again. "Maybe it's time we all gave it up."
At Rick's words, Merle's face flashed in his mind, the yellowing skin leeched of life, beady dead eyes tracking him as the empty body of his brother stumbled towards him, looking to rip him open with stained teeth. And for a minute, Daryl thought about saying that giving up was for pussies. Opened his mouth, even. But then he caught the light moving through the thinning trees, the flash of grey concrete and metal fencing that lay beyond the trees. So he shut his mouth, and kept walking. Hadn't they already given up on finding the man?
Light was streaming into the woods more heavily, and Daryl could just make out the little footbridge they'd set up over that crick running from the prison to the woods. There wasn't any loud sound coming from the prison, which was good. Peering through the leaves, he could only see a single walker, stumbling around the field beyond the fences. As they made it past the tree line, he could just make out the small shapes of a handful of folks, moving about just outside the huge structure. Daryl could see the heavy wooden braces set up against the fences, the large, bright blue rain barrels full from the recent storms. Saw the way the exterior was stained with wind and water, the painted-on lettering reading "C-BLOCK" peeling, and the uneven roofs of the little sheds and pavilions, the sty and garden trellises and fences they'd set up around the yard.
They stayed silent as they made their way up to the fences, eyeing the walker as it stumbled up to the far side of the fence, its growls too far away to be heard. Pushed the hair out of his eyes with the calloused ridge of skin and bone at the base of his palm and took the bag of meat off of Rick. Watched the woods and the field as Rick pulled the keys out of his pockets, but there was only the one walker. No unusual noise, nothing out of the ordinary.
Rick unlatched the side gate they'd jimmied shut with spare wire and a couple of locks, slipping through and holding one side of the chain link fence away so Daryl could step through, dragging the bag of meat in behind him. After locking everything back up, they turned back towards the exercise yard. Far off to one side, they could see Michonne walking around with Carl, the kid windmilling his arms around with a grin on his face and Michonne looking uncharacteristically at ease with her hands tucked into her back pockets. Her back was a relaxed s-curve, for all that she had that sword of hers still slung over her shoulder. Daryl caught the motion of Rick shaking his head out of the corner of his eye.
"Sometimes I feel like my kids like everyone else more'n they like me."
Daryl thought back to his father, the red-rimmed eyes and the busted-up capillaries spread across his face like a rash. The stale breath and heavy hands, the wheezing and crusty laughter that always felt like broken glass on his skin. An emphysmatic whistling that Merle had grown into in the last five or ten years. A sound to listen for in himself as he got older and more ragged. Rick had none of that going for him, that was for damn sure. "Bullshit."
"You know damn well Judith's practically attached to Beth. And Carl..." Rick tilted his head towards the pair walking around the yard with a sigh before turning back towards Daryl, their eyes meeting. "I don't know if I want to think the Governor's gone so I can finally try to let things get normal again, or if I actually believe the man's gone. Used to think he was really gone, but I've been feeling like maybe that ain't so true. Just a hunch, nothin' that amounts to anything. Just feeling uneasy."
Daryl shifted his weight from one foot to the other, feeling the twinge in his right shoulder all over again. Dropped his eyes from Rick's, trying to pull an answer out of the air. "No fuckin' clue, man," he finally mumbled. Cleared his throat, the next part coming out a bit louder, a little more certain. "Guys like that, though. Always come back, even when their ass is six feet under."
For a minute, he wasn't sure if Rick really got what he was saying. Wasn't really too sure himself. Fact of the fucking matter was, he just didn't know if the Governor was going to come back for all of them. The fucker could come back with a vengeance, wilder than ever. Might not ever come back. Could be ripped to shreds, rotting into the grass. They were stuck this way, one boot on the ground, the other one hovering carefully, trying to decide where to settle their next step. Everything tensed up. Everything just a matter of trying to figure out where to go from here. They'd been doing good, running on the pure fact of knowing they were safe for the moment. Things had been looking up, for a time. But the past few weeks, cracks had started showing up. The failed run that had left Zach dead. The fence almost collapsing, the mice in the weeds. That fucked up feeling he and Michonne had gotten at that restaurant. That kid dying underneath that big tree. The mice in the kitchens. Letting themselves think everything was going to be easy was a fucking mistake to make. But what the hell could they do about a man they hadn't seen in months? Chasing a cold trail was a fucking waste, when they needed people here to pull the prison together. Nothing else to be done for it.
As they walked across the yard, they could see groups of people at work, everybody coming into focus against the cement walls. A handful of men putting together another log brace for a weak section of fencing. A few women scrubbing down the grill and setting the outdoor oven to rights. Sasha, Tyrese, Maggie and Glenn doing something with the rain barrels. And Beth, blonde hair falling down her back in an unusually neat ponytail, tugging clothes and bedding off the line and tossing them into a big basket. She looked bright, in a clean white tank top that was loose around her belly and back. He'd never seen it on her before, but he liked the look of all that white against her skin. Pure white wasn't something they saw around here too often. Must've been something Maggie or Glenn brought back for her recently.
She wasn't too far away. Just a couple of feet to his right and he could be right there next to her. In the past few days, he'd been okay with seeking her out just to stand next to her, see her smile up close and feel that flicker of blue eyes on his skin. He'd been getting used to the looks from Carol and Rick and Glenn and all the rest. Him being around her wasn't really a secret, just something that went without saying. So he headed off towards the thin line of her body, so clean against the dingy looking set of sheets twitching back and forth. In the back of his mind, he could tell Rick was following alongside him, could probably tell what this deviation was about. But they just kept that silence they'd been holding onto, Daryl rubbing his free hand off on his dirty pants, and Rick falling back just enough that Daryl could barely see him out of the corner of his eye.
When he reached her, he did it without thought, reaching out a hand to brush his fingertips against her lower back. She was turning just at the same time, the startled look on her face fading into pleased surprise when she saw him. His hand dragged across her hip as she twisted to face him, the smooth cotton snagging and sliding against his skin before he pulled his hand away.
"Beth," he said, a sort of greeting that more or less made sense as the name rolled out of his mouth.
"Hey," she said to him with a teasing smile that drifted up into light blue eyes, glass blue, really, in the weak yellowish light filtering through the clouds. And then she looked over his shoulder, her smile shifting into something more neutral. "Hey, Rick."
"Hey, there, Beth. You got Judith with you?"
Beth shook her head. "No, soon as I've got all this, I'm gonna go in an' get her off of Carol." She stood up on her tiptoes, plucking at a couple of clothespins in quick motions, left hand holding the sheet steady on the line while her right grabbed the pins away. One quick motion and the sheet was pulled down and tossed into the basket. A quick sweep of her arm and the pins were back in place.
Rick shifted his feet, and Daryl watched the man's boots digging into the soil, still a little spongy with the week's rain. "I can take her. I need to spend a little more time with my girl, anyway."
And Beth just smiled and nodded. "Sounds good," she agreed, tugging down the last sheet. Just a couple stray socks and a lone shirt, flapping on the line.
"I was thinkin'," Rick began, and as Daryl turned to look, he could see that Rick had his hands on his hips again. Something he did when he had something to say. "I was thinkin' maybe I ought to have Judith's crib set up in my room. Take care of her nights so you can get some sleep, have some more time to yourself." And he could hear it in the strong rise and fall of Rick's voice, the gravel in his drawl. Could hear that this was something the man wanted.
A wooden clothespin fell, hitting Beth's boot before rolling onto the grass. She was bending to pick it up before Daryl could even react, clipping the pin back on the line. Brushing a tendril of hair out of her eyes, she turned to look at Rick over her shoulder. "She isn't any trouble to me, you know. I like having her around." She pulled the socks down, fuzzy cotton in different colors and sizes hanging over hand before she tossed them into the basket.
"You've been nothing but good with her. I just gotta spend more time with my little girl, be a better father to her. Can't expect you to do everything for her, Beth."
Daryl had the strangest urge to run his hand over the curve of her jaw, smooth out the tension he saw written there with a swipe of his thumb. But Beth just hummed a high-pitched agreement, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. And then she was picking up the basket of laundry, balancing it easily on her hip and her thin arms tense as she hugged the basket against the inward curve between chest and hips. "Guess I can't argue with that," she said, a strained smile pulling at one side of her mouth, her eyes darker than the last time he'd looked into them.
"Thank you, Beth. For everything," Rick said. And he knew the man meant it. Could hear it in the words, in the just loud enough volume of his voice. Saw it in the man's eyes.
Beth just gave both men a smile and a quick nod, nothing like the one she'd given them when they first walked up. A half-rotation of her body and she was walking away, leaving Daryl standing there, bag of rabbits in his hand and his crossbow hanging off of his aching shoulder. Watched that tiny white cotton and pale denim figure grow thinner and shorter before getting swallowed up by the metal doors, feeling awkward as hell standing next to Rick. Feeling like maybe he should've had the balls to press a hand to her face, the back of her neck. Maybe just her fucking arm, even. But he hadn't done it, and he didn't need anyone to tell him he was a fucking fool for letting her walk off without a word.
The clouds had started getting pretty thick around dinner time, and the rain had started falling shortly after that. Wasn't more than a few hours after that, and there was thunder and lightning off in the distance, slowly coming closer and closer until it was raining and storming like hell right over their heads. Daryl had been laying up in bed, watching the storm beyond the big windows in gap he'd left when he'd drawn up his curtain. It'd been humid all week, and now the storm was finally crashing down around them, annoyance and relief all at once. It was loud as all get out, rain pounding on the cement, wind whipping by and thunder like it could shake the whole place awake.
There was a moment of quiet, right before another roll of thunder crashed through the air, when he thought he heard something. He sat up, reaching for the knife under his pillow, feeling grateful he'd left his pants on before getting into bed.
Beth's voice, more like a rustling than words whispered from a few feet away.
He was out of bed in a second after that, making his way to the curtain and pulling it aside. And there she was, in the dark and then illuminated for barely a second by a quick flash of lightning. His eyes ran over her, head to toe, from her messy hair pulled away from her face, to the tight tank top that wasn't pulled down over her hips, to the sweatpants rolled up around her waist, to the toes of her boots peeking out from under the baggy fabric. "Y'alright?" he asked her, reaching for her and clamping a hand on her bare shoulder. The words came out harsh, pulled out of him by something that was clawing at his rib cage.
"'M sorry," she said, dropping her eyes and talking to his shoulder. Strange, how her voice could be so soft, like cotton, and he could still hear every word, clear as a bird call above his head. "I just… It's strange. Being in there without her." Beth looked back up at him, eyes gleaming a bit and lips parted like she was in the middle of a sigh.
Daryl nodded, dropping his arm and shuffling his feet a bit on the concrete. He hadn't even put his boots on, just bare feet on the cold, sticky-damp floor.
"Is it okay if I stay here for a while?" Her voice was still whispery.
He went still at that, just his pulse ticking away in his neck while all the rest of him locked up like ice. Daryl's eyes drifted across her bared hipbones, up and over her too tight tank top and small chest, to the loose pony tail and fuzzy curls hanging around her pretty face and big blue eyes. In that minute, she looked so young, swallowed up by the dark and the storm moving around her. The only words running through his head were fuckin' jailbait. "Beth…" he said, mouth a little dry. The weather was getting to him, the sudden influx of cool, stormy air breathing over him and making his joints throb.
Another roll of thunder swept through the prison. "I'm sorry for wakin' you up. I'm just being stupid." Dark as it was, he could see the flash of something like hurt in her eyes.
He rubbed a helpless hand over his shoulder, digging at the muscle with the pads of his fingers, trying to get at wherever that ache was coming from. "That ain't it, Beth. Just…" He let out a sigh. "Don't want people thinkin'..." He trailed off.
What he didn't want was people knowing anything more than they already did. Didn't want them knowing how badly he wanted her, even when she was small and scared looking. More than that, how fucking appealing it was, to have her in this small space, like she belonged here with him, amidst all his junk odds and ends and piles of knives and spare bolts and bits of leather. How this humid, cracked space might actually look like something nice with some of her books scattered around, or those goddamn pens of hers, every fucking shade in the rainbow, left piled up on his rickety little table next to that green book of hers. How nice she would look, curled up under the grey sheets, fast asleep, or walking around the space like she owned it. Like it was hers and his, all at once. But none of that was words to him, just scattered bits of made up bullshit that wandered through the back of his mind. More image and wishful thinking than coherent thought. So he just left his unfinished sentence hang in the air, letting all the strangeness between them stretch out, like the tension between lightning striking, and waiting for that growl of thunder.
"Okay," she said, finally, like either of them were saying anything that made sense. And after a beat, another jagged line of light lit up her face, and Daryl could see her biting her lip. Still too young and pretty, but there was something so fucking lonely in those big eyes of hers, looking up at him with her thin arms crossed over her small body. Like she was trying to hold herself together. She wasn't in her cell, singing old songs to a little girl, because that girl wasn't in there anymore. Judy was in Rick's cell, and Beth's was sitting emptier than it'd been in a long time. And he felt like shit in that moment, like he was kicking her out because hurting her was easier than being in the same space as her. Easier than comforting her the moment he'd seen how Rick's request had hurt her. She'd spent all that time searching him out, coming to him when he was too fucked up to be around anyone else. Never asked for anything but for him to share some space with her.
And here he was, pretty much telling her to get lost because he was acting like a fucking bitch. Because he hadn't figure out what was right, what was wrong, what anything was supposed to be like, when it came to being with Beth.
The rain was still coming down heavy, drops that pelted the windows in a jagged, tuneless constancy. "Hold on," he said, turning away and going over to the small pile of clothes in the corner of his room. Somewhere at the bottom, underneath some greasy rags and some shirts he'd forgotten about, he found a hooded sweatshirt Carol had pressed on him over the winter, some black thing he'd briefly contemplated ripping the sleeves off of before chucking it into the corner of his cell and ignoring it. Always hated the damn things. The small necks and those goddamned hoods always made him feel like he was in a constant fucking chokehold, all that fabric rubbing up against his throat like an arm. Grabbed his own jacket, too, pulling it on one handed as best he could while holding the sweatshirt out to her. "Here," he said. "Roll up them pants, too."
Daryl turned up the collar of his coat, watching the sweatshirt eat up her flat belly and thin arms. The sleeves fell down, well past her knuckles, when she bent to roll up those too long, too large sweatpants. Just the tips of her fingers moving as she folded the hem up a couple of times.
"You got a knife?" he asked when she straightened up.
Beth shook her head, and he almost asked, Why the fuck not? Instead, he just turned to knives he had laying around, all polished and sharpened, waiting to be dulled up and used. He dug around, trying to find something that would work well for her. Nothing that folded. Those were a fucking waste of time if he ever saw one, and a sure-fire way to cut your goddamned hand open if you were fumbling around. And nothing too big. Wouldn't do her any good if she couldn't get a good grip on it. And why the hell couldn't he find anything with a good sheath?
And then Daryl saw that hatchet, the one from Richie, the kid that died and was put down under a big tree at the side of the road. His hand slid over the handle, over the worn grooves, fingers instinctively gripping like he'd have to use the thing at any moment. It was a good weapon, maybe a bit too small for him, if anything. He'd sharpened it up, checked it over, used it to do what had to be done. He picked it up, testing the weight of it, the feel of it, wondering how it might fit in Beth's small hands. He didn't let himself think about Richie, the rattling in his lungs as he smoked his last cigarette listening to Daryl's words about the prison. Didn't think about putting the kid down or anything like that, just shoved it all under that blue tarp in his mind, next to his brother. Next to Andrea and Dale and all the fucking rest they'd lost after all this time.
He held the hatchet out to Beth, handle first. "You hold on to this. You go anywhere, you bring this with you. And you use it. Got me?" The words sounded hard, and a part of him felt like a dick, talking down to her. But he needed her to listen to him, needed her to always have something sharp on hand. Something meant some kind of chance at clawing your way out, and he needed that for her. And her wandering around without that chance, even behind these walls, wasn't something he could let happen.
Beth nodded, though, and he nodded back. She looked serious, like she was listening. Like maybe he wasn't a total dick after all.
"Alright. You ready?" he asked.
"Where're we going?" she asked, another streak of lightning crossing over her face. Barely a moment to see her blue eyes, a cloudy blue, and her lips, the lower one swollen, like she'd been biting it. And then everything was grey again.
He reached for his bow, slinging it over his shoulder and ignoring the answering twinge in the muscles there. "Outside," he answered, tugging the hood up over her hair. Just a few loose strands framing her face, brushing her cheekbones. He hesitated a moment, then brushed a strand away from her eyes, pushing it towards her ear.
Daryl could see her lips curving into an almost-smile. "I figured that bit out, ya know."
His hand found hers, slim fingers poking out from the too-wide by far sleeves of that sweatshirt. "Guess you'll have to wait and see, then, won't ya?"
They kept silent as they walked through the prison, Beth always close to his side. She held tight to him, even as they were walking down the stairs, trailing by just a step. They didn't see anyone moving around in the dark. Didn't hear anyone either, not that there was much to hear over the storm working overhead. The rain was still falling hard, but it wouldn't be the first time either of them had been out in weather like this, and it wasn't like they were going to be standing around outside, waiting for lightning to strike the same place twice.
Daryl finally stopped at the heavy double doors that led out to the courtyard. "Alright," he said, quietly, "We're gonna make a run for it. You stay righ' behind me."
"Got it," she said, a single nod of her head, just flashing blue eyes and pale skin lit up by the storm, blonde hair falling over her cheeks again. Just Beth. She squeezed his hand, and then let go, her hand slipping free of his as he moved towards the door.
Without anything else being said, he pushed the door open. He stood out in the rain as she brushed past, and shut it back up as quiet and as careful as he could. He started running then, knowing even in the dark where he was headed and what obstacles were in their way. It wasn't the first time he'd run around in the dark. Wouldn't be the last, either.
The rain was fucking cold, dripping down his neck and hitting his face in fat, greasy drops. It was sliding down the creased leather of his jacket, dripping onto his jeans. He felt his jeans getting soaked, saw the hair hanging in his eyes in wet clumps. Kept looking over his shoulder, but Beth was always right there, never more than half a step behind him. Swallowed up by that black sweatshirt, the hood fallen back against her shoulders and her grey sweatpants flecked more and more with fat splotches of rain. Their boots were pretty loud on the pavement, hard rubber on concrete and splashing through shallow puddles. And even though he knew just where they were in the yard, he had the strange feeling of being far away from all that. Like before, when he'd go out hunting and have to chase something down, because why the hell not? Running for the sake of it. Not running from, but to something.
Finally, the guard tower loomed ahead of them, a black shape looming against the purple-black clouds lit up by streaks of yellow-orange. He halted under the roof of the thing, Beth stopping right next to him. The rain was blowing inwards at them, hitting the backs of their legs as he pulled the door open. Daryl jerked his head at the doorway, and she complied, slipping inside the small space.
She was breathing heavy when he pulled the door shut, just a soft sound that filled the narrow walls. A high-pitched indrawn breath and a rapid, answering sigh. His eyes adjusted in a couple of seconds, and he could see her, looking around, studying the tall set of stairs that led up to the top of the tower. Letting out a gust of breath, she shoved wet, white-gold strands away from where they were sticking to her cheeks.
"Don't remember the last time I was even in here," Beth said, her voice echoing.
Daryl ran a damp hand through his wet hair, trying to get it out of his face, shaking his head back and forth to keep it all from dripping down into his eyes and along the side of his neck. "Ain't that excitin'."
"It's different, though. It's nice."
Grunting, he pulled off his jacket and shook it out, trying to get as much water off it as he could. "Alrigh'," he said, swiping at the hair sticking to his neck with the back of his hand. "Head on up," gesturing with his head towards the stairs.
They were both huffing a little when they reached the top of the tower, the empty space and those big, thick windows and open doorway to the walkway, where the wind was blowing through. The storm looked even crazier up here, closer to the clouds, higher up so they could see out over the yard and where the sky disappeared behind the woods.
He left his still dripping jacket on the lone folding chair and set his crossbow up against the wall. "Prob'ly shouldn't be up so high during a storm. But there's no electricity up here. Stay away from the windows, is all." He turned back to face her as he spoke, eyes sifting through the gloom until they landed on her.
Beth was silent, standing still in the middle of the room with the axe at her feet, the sweatshirt pulled off so she could use it to dry her hair. Probably hadn't even heard him, judging by the fact that she was almost motionless, facing away from him. He took a step towards her, studying the shape of her against the weakly illuminated windows. Her body was a soft curve, with her hips angled and head tilted, relaxed and yet somehow poised, like at any moment her arm would sweep out and she'd start to dance. But she just stood still, staring out over the yard, arms moving slowly as she rubbed the sweatshirt over her long ponytail. Her arms moved rhythmically, and her head would shift ever so slightly from time to time, moving her hair across her shoulder. His sight was good, even in the dark, and her pale skin was like marble, almost black shadows cast over the inward curves of her back and hip, and the crease of an elbow. Lighter shadows glanced off her collarbone, the line of her cheekbones. She still hadn't tugged her tank top down those last few inches, and if he could guess, she wasn't wearing a bra again. She'd come to him, looking like this. The sight of her, so calm and sure and still, cast up against the boiling storm raging on the other side of the glass, was strange to him, like he was watching a movie. Only, he knew she was right in front of him. He could feel every drop of water that was sliding down his back or beading on his face, a slippery coolness that didn't feel right on his hot skin. Could hear her breathing. If he got close enough, he could see the blue of her eyes, smell her musk and sweet and salt. He could touch her.
After what could have been hours, she pulled the hoodie away and ran a hand over her hair. She sighed out slowly, barely a noise over the rhythmic clanking of the shaking fence and the incessant rainfall, bunching up the black fabric between her hands and holding it to her chest.
"Beth," he said.
She turned at that, eyes meeting his. Like so many times before, he couldn't see much in her eyes, but he could feel them moving over him, studying him like she was trying to see under his skin. There was a flash of white, and jagged light crossed over her features and made her glow, glass blue eyes and pale lips in a white face.
"It's strange for you, isn't it?" Beth tucked a bit of hair behind her ear, staring at him from just a few feet away. "Bein' with me, I mean."
Daryl didn't know what to say to that. One part of him wondered if it was some sort of trick question, something he was supposed to answer a certain way. Another part of him wondered what strange even meant anymore. Strange wasn't enough of a word for what they lived, day in, day out. But he had an idea of what she was asking, all the same, so he just shrugged. His eyes flickered up to hers, trying to gauge her reaction. Trying to find what he could see in her eyes or the movement of her mouth.
The smile on her face was a slow curve, a little bit of a laugh in the twist of her smile. "Strange for me, too, you know," she offered. A little shrug, a small movement of her thin shoulders, and she dropped the subject. "You see a blanket over there? The floor's awful cold, and way too hard for this late at night. I bet Maggie's left one up here." She stepped closer to him, rolling her eyes, "Just in case, you know."
They found a blanket folded up in a dark corner, a big plaid square Beth spread over the middle of the floor, covering up a patch where the paint was peeling up in thick chips. She sat in the middle of the blanket, legs stretched out in front of her and leaning back on her palms. Feeling a strange sort of burning, a little like swallowing an ice cube, he settled down next to her, mimicking the way she sat. It wasn't any different from any of the days they sat out by the cars, leaning up against one of the scratched up doors, arms and boots brushing up against each other while they looked between the world and each other. But it was different. Different because it was black as sin outside, thunder rolling through them and lightning filling the space. Different because Beth was in her pajamas, wet hair leaving damp spots on her tank top and nipples pressing at the fabric, those long sweatpants sitting low on her hips and showing off too much of her body. And it was different because it seemed like they were sort of alone, just them, sitting up here, an entire storm away from the rest of the prison. Locked up and drying out, sitting here like they weren't in the middle of everything.
There wasn't anything he needed to say, and it seemed Beth felt the same way. So Daryl just enjoyed the sounds of them breathing, an occasional hum or sigh coming from Beth, all of it blending in and out of focus with the sounds raging on outside of the tower. The wind and thunder, the far off noises of the fence rattling and rain slapping against the windows. She ended up leaning up against him, curling both soft hands around one of his. Couldn't tell if she was doing it on purpose, but he could feel her tracing cuts and scars and calluses, the lines and creases in his knuckles. There was a part of him that wanted to yank his hands away, sit on them like a little kid so she couldn't see any of what time and life and written into his skin. But the bigger part of him felt a little like a barn cat, sitting in the sun and letting the warm rays move over his chewed-over ears and scarred nose. So, he let her keep on doing it, not saying anything, and just breathing in her smell, the rawness of her mixing with the cold freshness of all that rain.
While she ran her hands over his, he turned her words over in his mind. Strange for me, too, you know. There was a part of him that refused to believe that. He'd seen her with her family, with their group, with the baby. She was good with people. She'd even had that boyfriend, Jimmy or whatever, with the cowboy hat. Zach had been after her the second he saw her. Being with people couldn't be strange for her, because it didn't make a damn bit of sense. He could see the strangeness of her being with him, because that still didn't seem right to him, didn't seem like it could be true. Best he could see it, she felt what everyone did, that caring about people in this world was always strange, because they were all living on borrowed time, betting against the future with every risk they'd keep on taking, just to keep on living. Same strangeness everyone felt, only more, because it was her, and it was him. Two people that should've always been strangers, only they weren't anymore. Now they were two people sitting in a guard tower at what had once been a Georgia state penitentiary, storm watching.
"What time do you think it is?" Beth's hair brushed against his neck as she angled her head up towards him.
Looking out the window, it was hard to say. Still black and grey out, no sign of the moon. "Well past midnight. Not quite three yet."
She hummed her agreement, her index finger tracing the hard bones of his hand from knuckle to wrist. "Is it okay if we stay out a little bit longer?"
"Can stay's long as you want," he answered.
Beth looked up at him, laughter moving in her pale blue eyes. "That's right. You don't sleep, you just wander around the prison, lookin' for trouble."
"Think you're real funny, girl." But his words didn't have any heat, coming out of his mouth low and soft, and she leaned back into his shoulder.
The storm was starting to travel on past them, judging by the dimmer flashes of light and the quieter growls of the thunder that still echoed in the small space. The rain was still falling down heavy, the wind still whipping past, but everything lacked the rage it had when they'd first ran outside. Maybe like them, everything was calming down a bit, a little more comfortable with just being there. One of Beth's hands moved to his shirt, twisting at some loose threads where a button once had rested, just near his belly button. "You know," she said. "I used to think it'd always be me an' Judy. I never forgot she was Lori's, not for a single minute. She looks just like her. But, you know, it sort of felt like she became mine. Takin' care of her like she's mine is what I owe Lori. But she's Rick's, too. That's what I kinda forgot. Everything's been coming together and falling apart and getting pulled back again, and I just forgot that he's her father."
Daryl stayed silent. Beth's hand moved a little, tracing the colored lines that ran back and in the pattern of his flannel. "You make me think that maybe things have to be different for me. 'Cause it's not just me and Judy. She's got Rick, and Carl. And I got my family. I got you." Her hair brushed against his cheek and chin as she moved. And then her mouth pressed against his collarbone, where his shirt neck gaped open. Her lips were wet, and her breath moved over his skin as she pulled away. "We're trying to make everything right here. We're gonna do it, you know? Look how far we've come. After the farm… Well, I was starting to think we could never find a place to be. But we're here."
"Yeah," he said. "Guess so."
"You just sayin' that? Or do you really believe that?" She wasn't teasing, but she wasn't upset either. Just calm, waiting to see what he had to say.
Sighing, he pushed his hair out of his face with the back of his hand. "Still ain't safe. But maybe that's the way it's always gonna be. For us, anyway. Do what we can around here, an' maybe we won' have to run again."
Beth's hand smoothed his shirt where she'd been playing with threads. She hummed her agreement, head shifting against his shoulder. "We got right now, though. And we're staying here all night."
She lifted her head from his shoulder. "Yeah." Leaning up, she pressed her mouth up to his, soft and sweet, but warm. Neither of them tried to take it any farther than what it was, but it still felt like a promise of some sort. Like this was just for them. The storm, the guard tower. He brushed his lips over hers one last time before pulling back eyes open and studying the blue glass that greeted him when she opened hers.
There were a few hours until the sun came up. A few hours before they'd have to go back into the prison. Few hours of Beth sitting next to him in the guard tower, thunder growing more distant, lighting flashing dimly over her face. Few hours of just them, trying to find a place to just be, whatever the hell that meant these days. Maybe they'd figure it out, maybe not. But they had the time, at least.
"I used to have to get up early all the time, back on the farm. Help out before school. But the sun always looks different, coming up after you've been up all night waiting for it. You know?"
Daryl shrugged. "Don't know." He studied her hair, drying in loose waves over her shoulder, brushing against his chest. "Guess I'll see."
"You will," she said, finding his hand and squeezing it. "Promise."
Nothing to do but stay here, waiting for the sun to come up with Beth Greene tucked into his side.
A/N: I apologize for the outrageous wait, guys. Final semester of grad school, and I've got until August 11th to try to pull together my all-consuming final project so I don't fail. I can't believe how long it took me to get this up, and I won't let this sort of a wait happen again. I'm not abandoning this story. I love it too much for that. Being away from it has been awful, and writing while being distracted by school has been a really challenge and an overall awful blow to my creativity. So, I'm sorry if this chapter isn't the best. I'm just sort of worn out right now. I'm trying my hardest to make sure this is still a quality story for you all, because I'd rather take a long time to write a decent chapter, than post up crap just to get it out there.
Thank you for all of your continued support, messages, reviews, favorites, follows, everything. It means the world to me. I'm sorry I've not been able to personally reply to reviews lately. I'm going to try to get back on top of that.
Also, for anyone that prefers AO3: this story is now being posted over there, same title, same username.