Pairings: Rick/Daryl, side pairings like Glenn/Maggie, maybe more, but Rickyl is the focus.
Warnings: Spoilers. This takes place immediately following 04x12 'Still' and may come to include spoilers from the comic book series as well.
Author's Note: I'm a bit of a Prepper myself, so a lot of this is based off my own research, plans and knowledge. I apologize for any inaccuracies, but as far as I know, everything I've written is at least plausible. On a side note, I'm a complete and total nerd, so there are going to be a ton of nerdy references to other fandoms and the like in this story. For example, the story's title is the slogan of the movie Galaxy Quest. I am not sorry. lol
Hunkered down behind a beat up, torn up, piece of shit car with Beth trembling like a leaf behind him, and a group of five armed men in front of him, trying to coax them out, Daryl Dixon couldn't think of a better word to express his feelings on their current situation. Beth's hand was clenched tight in the tails of the button up he wore beneath his biker vest. The girl had her pistol out, but she had maybe one or two shots left. He had three bolts and then they were done.
"Look, man," the apparent leader of the group of men called out. "We don't want no trouble. Just give us the girl and your crossbow and you can be on your way."
Beth's fingers tightened on his shirt tails and the tiniest of terrified sounds escaped her. They were pinned down with very little hope of escape, and he wasn't stupid enough to believe they'd just let him walk away once they had what they wanted. Like hell he'd hand Beth over like that anyway. Think of him what the rest of the world would, Beth was as close to a little sister as he'd ever be likely to get and family was the only thing that mattered. They were out of options. Well, maybe one of them could get out of this. Glancing to his right, he took in Beth's terrified face as she immediately looked up to him. Voice low, he told her, "When I say run, you best do it."
"Daryl, no." Blue-grey eyes widened pleadingly and Daryl had to look away. "I'm not leaving without you."
"I'll catch up. Bet these assholes can't track worth a damn."
"They'll kill you-"
Both of them jumped, weapons automatically coming up, when absolute chaos erupted behind them on the other side of the car. The sound of gun fire, a body hitting the ground, the others barking at each other. From the sounds of it the assholes didn't know where to return fire. Daryl risked a peek over the hood of the car. Two of the men were down and unmoving. The other three were turning wildly, pointing out into the woods beside the small building – a gas station he and Beth had stepped in hoping for something to eat or drink and stumbled across these assholes instead – on the other side of the road and looking for the source of the attack. Another went down, though the shot was less than clean this time, hitting the guy in the side of his neck instead of the skull. The remaining two started to fire in the direction the shots had to be coming from, and Daryl decided right then and there that he was taking at least one of the fuckers down himself. The bolt went clean into an ear canal and the son of a bitch slumped, knocking into his companion on his way down. A breath later, the last of the men went down with him, the back of his skull a cavernous, gooey hole.
A calm settled over the scene, the only sound that of the man with the neck wound gurgling as he died slowly. He'd need to be put down for good soon, but for the moment, Daryl didn't dare move. Whoever had taken out the assholes might not be a friend. As if reading his mind, Beth tugged on his shirt. "Daryl, we should go."
Part of him wanted to see the new enemy, to know what they might face someday in the future, but the rest of him just wanted to get Beth to safety. She was all he had now. The only family left to him. Nodding slowly, he risked one last peek over the car and then nudged her, urging her to quietly make her way toward the woods on their side of the road. They'd gotten to the tail-lights when a voice called out to them.
"You can come out now."
Beth froze in front of him, and Daryl cursed softly. His temper was close to the boiling point. Beth looked over her shoulder, through sloppy bangs and days of dirt. She looked uncertain and scared and hopeful all at once. Daryl pursed his lips together. The voice was male, but younger, and Daryl could probably take him. They needed more fire power and those assholes had seemed to have plenty. The question was, was this new person alone or baiting a trap of some kind?
"Look, I'm not going to cause any trouble. I figured, if you came out, you'd be able to take some of the weapons. I've got a first aid kit with me. Are either of you hurt?"
Beth gave Daryl her most serious look, licked her lips and asked in a voice so soft he could barely hear her himself even with how close they were, "What do we do?"
Swallowing, he huffed through his nose. Of course, she would consider making god damned friends with him. Motioning for Beth to stay where she was, Daryl crept back toward the front of the car and peered around the headlight and bumper. Standing in the middle of the road with a hunting rifle held casually in the crook of his arm and a pistol at each hip, stood a young man who couldn't have been much older than Beth herself. Fucking great. He looked clean and calm, confident that the threat was handled. The kid wasn't overly tall, wasn't overly broad, but he looked able-bodied in his boots, blue jeans and open button up. The white shirt underneath was a little bloodied and a bit dirty and now that Daryl was focusing on more than the kids visible weapons and basic appearance he could see the jeans were spotted with blood as well. Even so, he looked like he'd only been out hunting for a day not like he'd been out surviving in a damned apocalypse.
"Alright," the kid said, voice breaking the silence suddenly again. "No problem. I'm gonna grab a few things from these guys and leave the rest for you."
The kid turned from them. He'd been staring off into the woods beyond the car until he'd turned away never looking directly at the vehicle. Now the kid moved over to the scattered bodies. The hunting rifle was laid to the side within easy reach as the kid knelt beside the slowly reanimating corpse of the asshole with the neck wound. The kid pulled a buck knife from the far side of his body and pressed it into the Walker's skull with skilled swiftness. The blade was wiped off tidily on the dispatched Walker's shirt and resheathed with practiced efficiency. He hadn't even had to look to replace the knife in its sheath. Immediately, the kid began rifling through pockets and clothes, pulling out knives, ammo and anything else that might be useful. Daryl's eyes drifted about the area, but it seemed that the kid had stepped out of the woods on the opposite side of the road where Daryl really couldn't get a good look.
Movement out of the corner of his eye, far too close for comfort, made Daryl jump. The grab he made for Beth's belt fell just short. With a muttered curse, he hurried to his feet to follow her with his crossbow aimed and ready. The sound of their feet on the asphalt brought the kid's attention around to them from the AR-15 he'd just pulled the magazine from. The only indication that the kid wasn't a complete idiot was the slight tensing of his shoulders. At least he wasn't some dumb fuck with a rose-colored view of the world.
"Hi," the kid offered and spun a little to face them. It didn't escape Daryl's notice that he didn't get up from his crouch right away.
"You alone?" Daryl asked, voice low and dangerous.
The kid lowered the magazine to the chest of the dead guy next to him and laid the rifle itself on the pavement. Both of his hands came up in the universal "I mean no harm" gesture, and he slowly got to his feet. "Yep. It's just me. You, uh, looked like you were in a bit of a spot."
And before he could snarl out "I had it," Beth was saying, "Thank you." The words were a bit rushed and Daryl cast a look over at her. She still had her pistol out, but she'd lowered it. "I mean, you could've just walked away."
The kid shook his head and the corner of his mouth crooked up in a half smirk that made Daryl briefly considering slugging him and running off with all his weapons. It took him a minute to realize the feelings were protectiveness of Beth and not the kid actually doing anything worthy of the thought. He seemed innocent enough, though innocent when he'd just taken out four of five enemies was a relative thing. The kid dropped his hands, hooking his thumbs into the front of his waist band. "No. I couldn't have."
"You got a place around here?" Daryl wasn't ready to trust this kid yet, his crossbow stayed up, aimed and ready to fire, but there was no way this kid could look this well put together and not have a place that offered protection, food and a place to clean up. Daryl needed to – he had to – get Beth to a place where she would be safe so that he could go back out and look for the rest of their group. So he could look for Judith and Carl and…Rick. The burning sting behind his eyes wasn't catching him off guard so much anymore, but he still had to squint hard to get it to stop. He hated the way his vision blurred. Rick Grimes was a tough mother fucker. Tougher than Merle had ever been. Daryl just had to find him, and the rest of the group would be easy enough to round up.
"It's a ways, but yeah. Look, my name's Jason Adler. I know it's a pretty shitty world out here these days and it's really difficult to figure out who to trust. Honestly, no offense, but if it wasn't for her, I'da shot those guys and left. I know what I can and can't handle in a fight and you, sir, are not someone I want to be on the wrong side of." The kid rubbed at the back of his neck and shrugged. "But, it's also really hard to make it alone out here. I'm all that's left and to be honest, I could use some company. Extra hands. I'd like to extend an invitation. If you like what you see and we can get along, you're welcome to stay."
"There are more of us," Beth blurted and her hands worked the grip of her pistol as she shifted nervously from foot to foot when Jason's bright brown eyes fell on her. Daryl sighed through his nose again and lowered the crossbow minutely while Beth continued. The girl wasn't gonna let it go, but then it was probably best that most of the cards went onto the table. Truthfully, Daryl knew they didn't have a whole lot of options at this point. "I mean, there might be. We got separated a few days ago when our home was attacked. We don't know if anyone besides us made it out, but there might be more of us."
Daryl looked back at the kid. Jason studied Beth for a minute and then looked to Daryl briefly before turning his attention back to the woods beside the gas station. A soft, two note whistle left his lips and Daryl's heart leapt into his throat. The crossbow was snug against his shoulder once more and trained on the kid's temple between one breath and the next. At this distance there was no chance in hell that he would miss. To his credit, Jason didn't so much as flinch. "I thought you said you was alone!"
Beth edged closer to him, pistol up and aimed in the direction Jason was looking.
"I am," Jason confirmed and pointed. Ambling out of the woods was probably one of the biggest horses Daryl had ever seen aside from the draft horses at the county fairs he and Merle used to hit up for some drunken entertainment. Where those horses had been beefy and broad, this beast was tall and just plain big boned. A second later the animal had come to a stop in front of them. Jason reached out and patted the beast's shiny orange neck. "This is Striker. And that's Dundee."
Daryl had been so distracted by the horse he hadn't noticed the dog. It was one of those herding critters with the blue-grey coat, black mask and the white spot on its forehead. Slowly, he lowered the crossbow as Beth, almost giddy with relief, shoved her pistol into her back pocket and squatted down. Show a girl a pet or baby and they turned to fucking mush. Daryl wiped at his nose with the back of his hand to keep himself from rolling his eyes.
"You have pets!" The dog came forward and leaned in without hesitation for Beth to pet him.
Daryl glanced up when Jason said, "I like to think of them as my partners in crime, but you can look at them like that if you want."
Beth grinned up at him, happier than Daryl had seen her in probably months. Vaguely, he remembered hearing something about the people animals put their trust in were worth your own, but it was hazy with the befuddlement of alcohol-overlayed memories. "We should get going. All that shootin's gonna bring Walkers." He hadn't survived this long by letting his guard down and he was getting antsy. Daryl just hoped that this kid was legitimate. From the glance Jason threw his way, Daryl would bet he hadn't said anything the kid wasn't already thinking. The red neck watched as the kid stooped and picked up his hunting rifle. He checked that the safety was on so casually it was clearly second nature and then slid it into the holster attached to the horse's saddle all in what seemed like one smooth motion. Then he turned and started gathering the rest of the weapons and useful things from the bodies again. Daryl surveyed the area warily, on guard and itching to get away from the area.
Once all of the loot was in a pile, Jason stood and made his way to the back of the horse. Nimble fingers pulled the leather ties holding the saddlebags free of the back of the saddle and Daryl watched intermittent to scanning their surroundings as the kid methodically unloaded each weapon, and stored the ammo, magazines and guns into one of the bags. The last pistol, a Sig Sauer nine millimeter, he reloaded and handed to Beth who had been equally watchful of their surroundings to that point. She flushed a little and took the pistol, handing over her small revolver. He dumped the ammo and put it into the bag without question. The AR-15 he reloaded, checked and then handed to Daryl. Daryl wasted no time in quickly slinging the thing over his shoulder. The kid looked satisfied as he turned back to the remaining pile. "Either of you want any of their clothes or footwear?"
"No," Daryl answered when Beth shook her head at him. "Let's jus' get the hell outta here."
Jason nodded and tossed the lighters, matches and knives into the other bag before belting them both closed. Once the saddlebags were secured to the back of the saddle again, he turned to Beth. "Up you go."
"I couldn't," Beth started to protest but Daryl could tell she wanted nothing more than to feel a horse under her again. It'd been such a long time since they'd lost the Greene Farm. Horses were something this girl considered home. So, he nudged her gently with his elbow and nodded when she shut her mouth and glanced back at him. Blushing, probably embarrassed that she'd been read so easily, Beth dropped her gaze and murmured, "Thank you."
For a split second, Jason looked like he was going to move in and help her up, but as Beth stepped toward the stirrup he fell back. The kid was observant and Daryl watched his eyes take in the way Beth snagged reins and mane and lifted her foot as smooth as silk as she hauled herself up into the saddle. The stirrups were too long, but she obviously didn't care. The grin on her face could have lit up the night sky, and she cooed to and patted the horse with an obvious familiarity.
"Dun. Point." Jason's voice drew Daryl's attention and he watched as the kid snapped and pointed out toward the road. The dog immediately moved out ahead of them, head low and ears turning. "He'll let us know if there are…Walkers, you called them?" Daryl nodded and the kid nodded in return. "It was surprisingly easy to transfer his training from cows and goats to Walker patrol. Turns out dogs with brains don't like the undead much."
Daryl nodded again – just a little dip of his chin – and adjusted his grip on his crossbow. As one they moved forward, the horse keeping pace with them easy as breathing and a surprisingly comfortable silence fell over them. It only lasted a few miles. Beth wasn't one for silence.
"So, what were you doin' out here, Jason?"
The kid glanced back at her and smiled. "I was scouting. Thought I'd grab a few supplies, see what the undead population was like now from the last time I'd been out. Honestly, I was really bored at home and just needed a change of scenery."
"We were trying to find our group," Beth told him and looked off into the woods they'd come out of. "And trying not to die."
A less comfortable more sad silence descended then and it followed them for another mile before Jason spoke again. "After we get you guys settled… cleaned up, rested… We'll head back over to the prison and see if we can't find anyone."
Daryl stopped in his tracks, hackles up. "We never said nothin' 'bout no prison."
Jason stopped and after a step or two the horse stopped too. Daryl stared the kid down behind the horse's ass, but Jason only shrugged. "I knew there was a group of survivors making it there. I'd been by a few times on runs and hunts, never close enough to make out more than figures of people that weren't shambling corpses. I went by it yesterday and saw the mess."
"Well, ain't you jus' full o' surprises," Daryl snapped and turned, walking briskly past the horse's head and on down the road. He'd never seen the trails the kid had to have left behind. There'd been enough Walkers moving about that it wasn't surprising, but the knowledge still stung. He hadn't noticed the kid, what else had he missed? In what other ways had he failed his people, useless white trash that he was most of the time, that had ultimately ended in the Governor's success?
"He's still hurting," Beth soothed as she nudged Striker forward, falling into step with Jason again. Daryl chose to ignore her. He'd snapped at her enough over the last few days. She didn't deserve it. "We both lost everything. Maybe even everyone."
"I understand," was their new companion's only response. The silence this time was sad and a little tight.
It was nightfall by the time they reached the first safeguard of Jason's home. Tension fence made in barbed wire stretched across the dirt road they'd been walking for most of dusk. From what Daryl could see it stretched far in both directions mostly using the trees as fence posts and aside from the road was four strands high. Jason moved forward as Dundee slipped under the bottom strand and grasped the spring handles, pulling them free of their loops and moving them to the side so that Daryl and Striker could move through. The rattle of the metal and plastic being reconnected was loud in the quiet forest.
"We're almost there," Jason assured them and moved out in front of them again. Beth smiled at Daryl when he looked at her, looking sleepy, but content. Honestly, Daryl had lost a little of his wary edge after a half a day's travel without incident. He was tired. Exhausted, really, and while he'd never admit it, it was nice to have one more able-bodied person with them. It wasn't the able-bodied person he wanted, but he was probably the only one feeling that discrepancy quite so fiercely. Beth could take care of herself, but…he'd worried a lot about her the last few days just the same. She was clearly adrift without Maggie, but he doubted that she felt Maggie's absence as acutely as he felt…Rick's.
The next safeguard was a medieval pike fence just like what they'd had back at the prison gates. Daryl silently stepped in to help as Jason pulled a smaller section free of its bindings and out of the way so that the horse could pass through. Together they re-secured the section into place and then climbed through themselves. When they finally reached the fence that surrounded Jason's home they all breathed a sigh of relief. Beth swung down out of the saddle and pulled the reins over the horse's head. Dundee sat panting patiently at the small gate off to the right of the large one. The fence itself was made of pike-like logs, reminiscent of the old settlers' fort walls.
Unlocking the padlocks that kept the gate secured while he was away, Jason pocketed all three of them and unlatched the gate. It swung open on silent hinges and he gestured the small group through. "Welcome to my humble home."
Just inside the gate, Beth and Daryl stared. Behind them, they heard Jason putting the padlocks on the gate from this side, but it was impossible to look away from the moonlit sight before them. The gates opened onto a dirt parking lot. It was edged in meadow grass to the left that also edged a short stone walkway up to a classic looking two story farm house with a cozy wraparound porch. Grazing idly on the grass in that front yard were several goats. Directly in front of them at the far edge of the large dirt lot and looming like a great hulking mountain was a barn, rough in the way that old built farm buildings often were. Striker let out a cheerful whinny and was answered from somewhere beyond the barn by several answering horse calls. This greeting seemed to set off a cacophony of animal greetings: the hungry low of cattle, the eager bleating of goats, a couple of barks from the direction of the house. To their right appeared to be a fenced in vegetable garden, bushy with growth.
"Go on inside," Jason murmured, breaking the spell of awe as he took the reins from Beth. "Make yourselves at home. I've got chores to do before I head in."
"We can help," Beth immediately protested.
Daryl, for one second, thought the kid would refuse. Instead he just smiled and nodded, saying, "I'd appreciate it. I know you're tired. I am, too, but more hands make lighter work around this place. Plus, I expect you'll be pulling your weight and the sooner you know what's what, the easier it'll be. You two don't look like the type to mooch."
"We aren't, and I grew up on a farm, so you just tell me what to do and it'll get done. Daryl's a fast learner." Beth's assurance was firm and Daryl nodded. Never in his life had he thought he'd be standing right smack in the middle of a little piece of heaven. Even the Greene Farm had been less than ideal, with so much tension and open space. It'd made a man twitchy. This farm felt snug like home and secure like a fortress.
"How'd you come int' this place?" Daryl couldn't help but ask as they followed Jason to the barn doors. They opened easily, swinging out on well-oiled hinges. Once inside, he and Beth froze. It was pitch black inside and every nerve was on fire with their inability to see. The sound of a striking match preceded the lighting of a hanging lantern and the interior of the barn was cast in a soft, shadowy glow. The entryway of the dirt floored barn was open until a quarter of the way in where stalls picked up on either side. The ones on the left were narrow and open with low walls. The ones on the right were big closed in boxes. It made Daryl wonder just how many animals this kid was managing to take care of. To the right of the doors were big plastic bins and to the left was a free standing bench. Beyond the bench were stairs that presumably led to the loft above them.
"It's been in my family for three generations. My grandparents and my parents worked tirelessly to secure us a place in the world. At the time, a lot of people laughed, calling them Preppers like it was a bad thing. Called them apocalypse fanatics, too, but …honestly, who's laughing now?" Jason shook his head. "This is a homestead. We're completely self-sufficient here. Solar panels and wind energy run the house. A wood burning stove keeps the place warm in winter. The horses are our transportation and it's them that pull the wagons, the hay-bine, the baler. It takes special equipment, but it's well worth the trouble of finding parts. Hell, I doubt I'll have to look anyway because Dad was smart and stocked up quite a bit on the things he knew wouldn't be readily available. What the horses can't do, we've done by hand."
"This is amazing," Beth murmured. Daryl just shook his head unable to voice the tumult of emotions running through him. If they'd found this place while the group had been looking before the prison…
"But it's hard to maintain single-handed, so you guys were a stroke of luck. Or fate maybe. Who knows anymore. Point is, it looked like you needed me as much I definitely needed you." Jason was smiling right back at her, equally excited by the prospect of them as they were by the prospect of him and everything he had to offer.
"What happened To the rest of your…y'know, group?" He knew his voice was husky. It was hard to ask a question that would probably be difficult to answer. Hell, he didn't ever want to have to talk about the prison ever, ever again. What was Jason's story?
Daryl started. He couldn't have heard right. That didn't happen anymore…did it? "What?"
Jason turned back to Striker and began removing his bridle. Daryl hadn't even noticed he'd already picked up a halter to replace it while he'd been moving the horse to the start of the stalls. Jason moved around Striker with smooth, efficient motions securing him in cross ties and pulling off the saddlebags and the rifle in its holster first and laying them on the bench before removing the saddle. He dumped the tack on the floor and grabbed something up off the shelf beneath the bench. A brush from the look of it. It wasn't until he was brushing the horse down that he finally elaborated. "My grandparents passed away a year before the world went crazy. They went one right after the other. Grandpa died in his sleep first then grandma died of a heart attack a couple months later. My mom's folks. Dad's parents were in Florida. I'm sure they're not alive now. Mom and Dad were older when they had me. My older sister Helen was already grown and gone and getting ready to start working on a family of her own. I haven't heard from her since she emailed me to tell us that she was trying to evacuate from Atlanta. I'm pretty sure she didn't make it out. Her husband was kind of an idiot. Once the world went down, getting the medicine that was keeping my folks alive was difficult. Eventually, they succumbed to their age. Dad went first, a heart attack like grandma. Mom…well, she was mostly okay for a bit, but I think not having Dad around did her in. She had a seizure completely out of the blue. Probably had to do with her diabetes."
The sound of his hand patting Striker's neck was loud in the dimly lit barn.
"I'm sorry," Beth said, sounding as genuine as she always did. She was a very compassionate person. Daryl said nothing. Even if he'd wanted to offer the kid something, he wouldn't have known what to say.
"I'm not," Jason responded his voice soft. "They got to grow old. Maybe their deaths weren't peaceful like my grandpa's, but at least they didn't die violently like so many people have in the last couple years."
Daryl took in the slight wince from Jason when he realized what he'd said, but before the kid could start another round of apologizing, Daryl cut in. "Let's get this done. I'm fuckin' hungry."
It took them what amounted to about another hour and a half, but took a lot less time than Daryl had thought it would. Saddlebags over his shoulder and rifle in his other hand, Jason led them up to the house at last. Dundee was already sitting at the front door, waiting to be let in.
"I can't believe this is real," Beth murmured as they followed Jason through the door. The house was clean and orderly with a bookshelf lined room immediately to the left of the foyer, stairs to the second story right there in the entrance and what looked like a dining room down a short hall past the stairs. They were greeted by two more dogs trotting down that hallway, tails wagging. One was a sleek black German Shepherd. The other was a tall, yellow lab.
"The Shepherd's name is Riversong. The Lab's is Winchester." Jason sounded happy as he greeted each dog with a rub to the tops of their heads. The Lab, barely pausing for his master's greeting, made a bee-line for Daryl, eager to say hello and sniff at the red neck's legs. Daryl shifted back, uncertain of the dog's intentions. The Shepherd just sat down by Jason and watched them with curiously intelligent eyes. Beth immediately started scratching at the Lab's back with both hands. The dog glanced back at her, wagged his tail a little harder, then promptly returned to sniffing up a storm on Daryl's pant legs. Tentatively, he reached down and stroked the dogs head. Its tail wagged faster, shaking its whole body.
"How are you getting food for them?" Beth asked in awe. It'd been so long since she'd seen a home happy enough for pets and it showed on her face.
"We have a pantry you wouldn't believe without seeing it for yourself. Canned goods both from the store and from our garden, a few pallets of pet food, non-perishable boxed foods… uhm, MREs, plus whatever we hunt up or slaughter out of the yard. I'm adding to it all the time with runs into the surrounding towns and villages." Jason shrugged and draped the saddlebags over the banister of the stairs. "I didn't want to pry before, but you haven't told me your name?"
Beth's face colored a bright red and she fluttered her hands over her mouth. "Oh my gosh! I'm so sorry! I'm Beth. Beth Greene, and this is Daryl Dixon. I can't believe…we didn't mean to be so rude!"
Jason chuckled and snapped his fingers. "It's fine. Winchester! Leave the poor man alone."
The dog turned happily enough and trotted over to Jason who grabbed both of the dogs ears and rubbed. The dog looked like he was in bliss. After a minute, Jason looked back up, all smiles. "Well, Beth Greene and Daryl Dixon, if you'd like there's a shower in both bathrooms with your names on them. I can take your clothes and have them washed and dried for tomorrow. In the meantime, I can scrounge up changes for you both while you're bathing."
"You have running water in this place?" Daryl couldn't help the note of skepticism in his voice.
"One better. Hot, running water."
Daryl met Beth's gaze and, for the first time in what felt like too long, he grinned right back at her.