"I've got it!" Beth called from the front of the group, plunging her knife in the approaching Walker's decaying skull. It fell to the ground with a heavy thud.
Daryl watched her flick the blood from her knife and tuck it safely back at her hip. He watched her a lot since she had reunited with the group almost two weeks ago. Like if she wasn't constantly in his line of sight, she'd disappear again. Daryl's brows drew together as he scowled at the thought. Not while he was still breathing. Never again. The guilt of letting her get taken had nearly killed him. He still carried it with him, laying heavily on his heart, even though she was safely back where she belonged. He kept it there. He deserved that for failing her.
Daryl didn't know if it had been fate or just dumb luck that they had stumbled onto that car, broken down on the side of the road, doors hanging open. The minute he saw the cross in the back window, his heart had lurched into his throat ...Beth! The car was empty, but the hood was still warm. Daryl had taken off into the surrounding woods, ignoring everyone's questions and protests. It was a few yards in that he'd found them ...Beth and an older man hunched in front of a small fire. She'd heard him approach and leapt to her feet at the last minute, knife in hand, placing herself protectively in front of the older man with a feral look in her eyes. The little hellcat, he had taught her well. Her eyes had softened upon recognition, her voice a soft whisper as she'd said his name in disbelief. There was so much he wanted to say to her, but then suddenly the group was there behind him and Maggie was shoving her way past everyone to throw her arms around her little sister. Instinctively, Daryl raised his crossbow and pointed it in Beth's abductors' face. The man raised his hands up in front of his face defensively, sheer terror in his gaunt features.
"It's okay, Daryl, " Beth had crooned softly, placing her hand on his shoulder and stepping in between Daryl's crossbow and the cowering man. "This is Father Gabriel. He's a friend."
They had camped there for the night and Beth and Father Gabriel had recounted the events that had unfolded that evening at the mortuary. All but what had transpired between her and Daryl before all hell had broken loose. The mortuary had been Father Gabriel's safe house. He had been returning from a run when Beth had darted out onto the road, and right into the path of his moving vehicle. She had been knocked unconscious, but was still breathing and in a panic, he had scooped her up, shoved her inside and took off without a second thought to the scoundrel chasing after them. He thought the woman had been running from the man, and that he was saving her. When Beth had awoken, she had pleaded with him to go back, finally resorting to threatening his life. It had worked, but by the time they had returned, there was no sign of Daryl.
Daryl shifted the weight of his crossbow to his other shoulder and glared at the man who had whisked Beth away from him that night. He supposed he should be grateful that he had only good intentions, but truthfully Daryl wanted to stomp him into the ground. It seemed so unfair that when Daryl had finally allowed himself to grasp a bit of happiness, it had been snatched away from him. He should have known better. He didn't deserve that kind of happiness, anyway. Not with Beth Greene.
Before the world had gone to shit, a girl like Beth wouldn't have even given him a second look. Not that he would have blamed her. He wasn't really anything to look at. He wasn't really anything, period. She asked and he had told her ...he was nothin'. "Ya gotta say who you are, not who you were", her words came back to haunt him and played over and over in his mind like a litany. She was wrong, because he had let her down again, just like back at the prison. If he hadn't been so worried about getting her that stupid dog, they would have gotten out safely together. Daryl's gaze shifted to the scroungy one-eyed mutt trotting happily beside Beth.
" Stupid mutt", he spat.
"What was that?" Rick asked, making Daryl suddenly aware that someone was walking beside him.
Shit! Had he said that out loud? Get a grip, Dixon!
"Nuttin'. Just thinkin' we should prob'ly be makin' camp soon," Daryl said, wiping the sweat from his brow. The sun was getting lower in the sky overhead. It was getting cooler now that fall was officially here, but the sun was still unforgiving when you walked for miles with tons of gear on your back.
"Yeah, yer probably right," Rick agreed. "Maybe just a little further?" He cast a nervous glance behind him.
Instinctively, Daryl looked over his shoulder, too. They were far from Terminus ...weeks away. There really wasn't any reason for the Terminites to be tailing them, but you could never be too cautious these days. Daryl held onto the grain of hope that Beth had instilled in him; that their were indeed still good people in the world. Unfortunately, they usually encountered the bad.
Judith's wails split the silence, putting the whole group on alert. Tyrese shifted her little makeshift baby carrier around to the front of his lumbering frame and crooned to her softly. He had become her guardian of sorts, and baby Judy had him wrapped around her pudgy little finger. Daryl smirked. Lil' Asskicker had spoken, it was time to make camp. Beth eased her pack off her back and dug out a jar of baby food, then plucked Judith out of Tyrese's arms. Judith knew her dinner was coming and cooed impatiently. Now that she was eating solids, she ate more frequently. It was a little early, but they hadn't really had a choice. Formula was hard to come by on the road, but they had hit the jackpot on some Gerber jars at the last house they had scavenged before jumping on the highway.
"Will you hold her while I feed her, Carl?" Beth asked.
"Sure," Carl agreed, anxiously. He was happy to get out of setting up camp.
Sasha, Bob and Glenn led the way off the road a bit, keeping alert for Walkers. Maggie stayed close to Beth and Carl, the rest picking up the rear while they all walked a safe distance from the road. When they found a suitable spot, Beth and Carl took a seat against a tree to feed Judith before her cries brought a herd down on them, while everyone else busied themselves getting their camp together and getting some food cooked up.
Daryl had just finished stringing the last of the tin cans around the perimeter when Glenn approached him with a plate of beef jerky and beans. Daryl itched to go hunting and get some real meat. If only to break away for awhile and clear his head. They needed to get as far north as they could before winter came. They needed to find some wheels and soon. He stole a quick glance in Beth's direction. She was deep in conversation with Maggie. The two were almost inseparable since being reunited.
Daryl watched the animated way Beth conversed with her sister. Her ponytail swayed back and forth with every bounce of her head. He had the sudden urge to see what her golden hair would look like free from the confines of that elastic band, cascading around her shoulders and moving wildly in the breeze. Woah! Where in the hell did that come from?
"Dude, I hope its not my wife you're staring at like that," Glenn nudged him playfully in the ribs.
"What?" Daryl nearly choked on the jerky he was chewing.
Glenn slapped him on the back. "Relax man, I'm just kidding."
Rick waved them closer and Daryl was happy for the distraction. They passed around a bottle of water while they mapped out their direction for tomorrow. Abe voiced Daryl's earlier thought about the need to find some working vehicles, while Eugene babbled about useless shit to anyone who would listen. Daryl was sure he just loved the sound of his own voice.
"Alright, we should get some shut eye. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow and we need to put a spring in our step if we're gonna get to DC before winter hits," Rick addressed the group. "We'll split in pairs of four tonight for watch. Two on each side of the perimeter. I'll take the first watch with Michonne, Tyrese and Carol. Daryl, you take the second watch with Abe, Rosita and Ta-"
"I'll take second watch with them", Beth interrupted, her blue eyes locked on Daryl while everyone else's eyes were locked on her. "Tara's leg is still hurt and we've done nothing but walk for days now. She should rest."
"You should rest too," Maggie insisted. "I'll do -"
Beth cut her off, not to be deterred. "You were on watch last night. I can do it. I'm doin' it," Beth insisted, looking intently at her sister, a challenge in her eyes.
Rick looked at Daryl for confirmation and was met with a nod of approval. "Why not?" Daryl shrugged, feigning indifference. He stood and moved away from the group, and settled against the trunk of one of the perimeter trees. He watched while the camp settled in for the night, everyone heading to their tents, and Carl kicking dirt on the fire to put it out before crawling into Rick's tent with Lil Asskicker. Daryl had a tent too, he just didn't feel like putting it up for one night. He was just as comfortable against the tree. Sleeping on the ground was sleeping on the ground, after all. If he could stop his racing thoughts and actually get some sleep, he thought dryly.
He remembered how Beth had fixed her beautiful blue eyes on him as she boldly announced to the group that she was taking the second watch. He knew that she wanted to talk to him, had sensed it for awhile now. What the hell was he supposed to say? He knew what he wanted to say, but whenever he opened his mouth, it all came out wrong and he ended up looking like a damn fool.
He'd gone over it in his mind a million times since the night he had hopped in the coffin and listened to her sing softly about "laying in the lawn and shot gunning beer". He wanted to tell her that she had changed him, that for the first time in longer than he could remember, he wanted more. He wanted happiness. He wanted to live and not just survive. He wanted to make her smile, hear her laugh, listen to her sing. He would have been content to live out the rest of his days in that funeral parlor with Beth Greene. And then that night at the table, when he had finally worked up enough courage to tell her, he opened his mouth and all that came out was "You know." He had tried then, so hard to convey to her with his eyes what he couldn't seem to force out of his mouth, and he'd made a complete and total ass out of himself! Had she known what he meant? Did she understand what was in his heart? Did he even understand it? And then it didn't matter because she had been ripped away from him and reality had set in.
Daryl was not a religious man by any means, but he had begged whatever Spirit resided in the sky every day while they were separated to let him find her again, to let her be okay. He swore he would never give another selfish thought to his own happiness again if she would just return unharmed. His faith had been rewarded. He had gotten his wish, and so he would keep up his end of the bargain.
He had never wanted a cigarette so badly in all his life! Daryl sat up just in time to see Carol storm angrily away from Rick. They fought a lot since Terminus. Rick still didn't fully trust her. Truth be told, neither did he. Daryl knew she was hiding something, but he wasn't going to push her. If she wanted to tell him, she would when she was ready. He loved Carol, he always would. If Rick was his brother, then Carol was his sister. She was traveling down such a dark path though, and he was going in the opposite direction. He felt miles away from Carol and in the meantime, he had enough shit to worry about. He was confident she would work it out in her own time and in her own way. Carol was far from the weak, abused woman he met three years ago at the quarry. She was a survivor now, in every sense of the word.
Maybe he should just get up and relieve someone? It was obvious he wasn't going to get any sleep. Not tonight. Daryl leaned back against the tree again and tugged on his chin hair, willing his weary body to relax. His thoughts drifted once more, back to Beth. Why the hell couldn't he get her out of his head for longer than five minutes? Did she think about him too, he wondered? No. He wouldn't go there. As usual, his mind wouldn't cooperate, though.
"Oh." What did that mean, anyway? It hadn't seemed like a bad, "Oh". She hadn't looked repulsed or frightened ...just shocked. Christ, she wasn't the only one! Daryl has spent years building up the thick skin he used to protect himself, and like the mud snake he had skinned that day in the woods, Beth had stripped him of his protective layer and made him vulnerable.
It had felt so good to shed some of his demons, though. To let go of the bullshit that had been suffocating him since he was just a dumb kid growing up in Merle's shadow. He wasn't that asshole redneck anymore. He wasn't! He had left that part of him in the ashes of the moonshine shack they had burned down. He was a good man, wasn't he? Beth said he shouldn't need anyone to remind him. He did, though, because a good man wouldn't have stopped looking for her. A good man would have kept running. More importantly, a good man would not be laying against a tree thinking about a girl he could never have.
Daryl threw his hand over his eyes and groaned inwardly. The hell with it, then! He conjured up Beth's image in his mind. Beth plucking at the piano keys. Beth singing softly. Beth scrawling out thank you notes to strangers and finding beauty in made-up Walkers. Beth bouncing Lil Asskicker on her hip. Beth hugging him from behind ...holding him up when the weight of the world had gotten to heavy. Finally his eyelids drifted closed and sleep found him.