For the last hundred yards of her trip home, Beth saw the truck, and thought she recognized the bike with a skip of her heart. At first she couldn't see past them to find the man until she was already stumbling her way out of her car. She pictured him in her mind so often over the past week and every detail was the same. His blue eyes were so strangely timid and innocent, though he'd cultivated a decidedly aggressive air, with the way he held himself and his stiff jaw. He stood with his hands in his pockets, framed by the stairs and surrounding railings of the porch. There was an instant of a kind of surreality, because he looked like he belonged here, but at the same time she never could have really imagined it until it happened.
"Daryl!" she didn't hold back her smile, didn't want to hold back anything, but after firmly closing her teeth over her bottom lip she hurried to the stairs to meet him on the steps. "You came! I was starting to wonder," she admitted, stopping herself a foot in front of him.
He must have heard the little bit of worry that crept into her voice because he nodded in acknowledgment, "Yeah, we went to do that job with Jer and his crew," he said in undertone.
She was disappointed, but tried to understand. This was the way he was used to living life. Still, she felt a little stab at her heart as his harsh words came back to her from a week ago. At the time, she'd just thought he was being defensive, but maybe he really did think that she was just a spoiled, clueless girl who could never understand what he was going through. "But you're okay?" she wouldn't let herself get mad at him for going on the job, not right now, anyway. He'd shown up, and she was relieved.
"I am, yeah." He rubbed uncomfortably at the back of his neck, glancing sideways as if afraid they'd be overheard.
Then she noticed; there was only one bike in the truck and no sign of his brother, "Didn't Merle come…?" she trailed off as he shook his head.
"It went bad, Beth. Real bad."
"…Is he alive?" She felt cold. She'd only had one civil conversation with the man, but all the same, she'd come to like Merle, even with his uncouth tongue and careless gaze.
Daryl groaned at that, "I think so," he said with, she suspected, a little more confidence than he might actually own in the moment. "He's one tough bastard. But I can't find him. I looked for days. He's gotta lie low, or..." Daryl didn't finish the thought. He knew full well it was a possibility that Merle was gone, but he didn't want to say it in so many words as she had. She regretted jumping to that conclusion; her doubt seemed to have rattled him.
"I'm sure he's alright," she gripped his arm, drawing his eyes to hers. "Does he know how to find you?"
"Told him I was comin' here," Daryl nodded, "he didn't get a good look at the directions you gave me, but he knows the name Greene and the area. He'll turn up when he can."
She could hear the engine of another car approaching, but ignored it for the moment, though Daryl looked nervously past her, over her shoulder. "Would you tell me what happened? I wanna hear…" the car behind them was roaring up awful close to the house and at a speed that most would deem unsafe. With a little leap inside her chest she realized who it had to be and quickly said, "…Not now though." The last words came out rapidly and then she turned on her heel just in time to greet her brother with a "Hey Shawn! What're you doin' here?" As she turned her back to him, she thought she heard Daryl swear under his breath, but it could have been her imagination.
Shawn clicked the doors locked on his new little Mazda, and flashed her a smile, though his brow knit a little as his gaze shifted to take in the man standing just over her shoulder. "Hey baby sis, gimme a hug."
Especially after long periods of separation, Shawn tended to hug her in a way that didn't speak well of his respect for her physical safety. 'Rib-snapping' was the term that Maggie sometimes used to describe it. She barely managed to drop her bag in time for him to scoop her up under her arms and lifted her up off the ground, squeezing her so tight around the middle that she couldn't draw breath to laugh. "Sorry I missed your birthday, Bethy."
"That's okay," she managed to choke out as he set her back down. "Seriously though—what's goin' on?" he was in his second semester at medical school, supposedly suffocating under a mountain of work so dense that light was but a distant memory, or so he'd said in his most recent e-mail.
"Well…" a little bit of red guilt shown in his cheeks and his expression turned to a grimace. "I think I'm done," he winced, as if expecting Beth to hit him, but she was too shocked to react right away. "Wanna tell mom and Hershel?" he asked in a strained voice. "I'll give you whatever I've got in my wallet—which I think is somewhere in the area of sixty-two cents."
"Shawn," she could only shake her head, her mouth hung open. Shawn dropping out of medical school was not going to go over well with her parents.
"So, who's this?" Shawn seemed to only be able to squirm in front of his little sister's shock and disappointment for a few seconds before he had to change the subject, "Sorry—that's rude of me, who're you?" he addressed Daryl directly with a grin that was still infused with nervous redness.
"Dad's just hired him," Beth explained, "There's a lot of extra work all the sudden, might have to hire a few new people," she added, still not fully recovered from what Shawn had just told her.
"Oh really?" Shawn brightened at that, "'Cause, I suddenly got a lot of free time," he clapped his hands nervously and took a deep breath, looking at the house. "Okay—I'm going in."
"I'll just stay out here a while," said Beth cautiously, she didn't want to be there for this. She couldn't see her father getting very angry, but he was bound to be saddened by Shawn's most recent life decision. Her father always looked especially elderly when he was sad. Still, he would need someone to comfort him later. She'd make herself available then.
"What's he gonna say?" Daryl asked her in undertone as Shawn disappeared into the house.
Beth shrugged, "It depends on Shawn's reason, I think. If he's got a good reason than dad'll be more understanding—if it's just that it's hard and he's a quitter, than he'll get called out on that. I bet they'll try to talk him into headin' back, either way."
"What's a good reason?" Daryl took a couple of steps up onto the porch and leaned back against the railing, it was only than that she realized how tense he'd been since the second she'd seem him standing there, but finally he was starting to look a little more comfortable in his new surroundings.
She shrugged again, preoccupied by the sudden thought that she'd fit well, right up against him. Reclining in front of her, it was tempting to get closer. "I uh… I guess if he genuinely knew that it wasn't right for him. Otherwise… it's just 'cause he's scared or angry or lazy. That won't be good enough for my dad."
Beth was half-listening for voices inside the house, but her father rarely yelled and she doubted this would be a moment for that. All the same, she did think it was best to hang back. She picked up her backpack off the ground and dusted it off, then set it on a chair on the porch and returned to where Daryl was waiting by the stairs.
She'd been so worried that he wouldn't show up, but now that he'd come she was still worried. What did it mean? Did she have a design in getting him here? It felt like she did, but she was having trouble grasping the shape of it in her mind. She only knew that something told her that he belonged here. Since she'd first seen him standing on her porch she'd been fighting the urge to throw her arms around him again. The knowledge that he hadn't precisely appreciated it the last time held her back, along with the close proximately of her family.
She sauntered as close to him as she dared at the moment, watching him carefully as he tensed up again, eyes following. She turned at the last minute, sitting back on the railing next to him. "So, what happened?" she asked mildly. "You don't have to tell me anything—but if you wanna—"
"It was just ugly, s'all," he mumbled. "I don't even really understand what happened, but I can guess. Jer and his crew weren't the only ones who knew 'bout the shipment. We crossed paths with others who wanted 'em. Merle was on the secure side of the lot. That's where I heard trouble. By the time I got there—wasn't much to see."
But something in his voice made her think he wasn't being entirely honest. Maybe there wasn't much to see that he wanted to talk about, but he'd seen something.
"…I let out, 'cause by then we'd attracted too much attention. Cops were on their way. Merle was already gone." He rubbed at the stubble on his cheek, glancing at the doorway of the house again.
She looked down at his other hand, gripping the railing next to her, knuckles pale. Tentative at first, but then with firmness, she slid her fingers over the top of his hand. "He'll be here soon… I'm glad you're okay."
Looking at her sideways, she couldn't quite read his expression this time, but he wasn't shying away from her, which seemed to be a good sign. She felt his hand shift under hers and eased back, at first thinking that he was trying to pull away, but then he turned his palm up and laced his fingers through hers.
He gave her the shivers, but she could tell from looking at his face that he didn't have any idea. His calloused hand pulsed against her own. Then, as quickly as he'd dared to take a hold of her, he let go—the front door opened and Otis came onto the porch. She noticed Daryl quickly running his hand down the side of his pant-leg, as he got to his feet.
"Sorry, took a minute to find the right stuff," Otis held up a small collection of paperwork and groped around his front pocket for a pen, gesturing for Daryl to follow him. He clearly hadn't seen anything, from the blasé way that he walked right past the pair of them to the steps.
Daryl turned to follow him, giving Beth a nod as he reluctantly descended the steps. She smiled, though she felt a pointed dissatisfaction that they couldn't talk longer. She watched them walk away, oblivious to the fact that she wasn't alone on the porch until her mother cleared her throat.
"Oh! Hi. You scared me," her heart thumped loudly against her ribs. "Is it bad in there?" she shifted her eyes to the house indicating the inevitable confrontation between her brother and her father.
Annette stood with her arms crossed, watching Otis and Daryl heading in the direction of Daryl's truck with a blank, worrisome look on her face. "Not bad," she said with a forlorn sigh, "Just intense. I thought I'd let them say their words. I think I can already make up both sides of the conversation for myself in my own head. They've each gotta say their peace." She walked over to Beth, sliding an arm across her shoulder and turning her around to appreciate the view of their land.
Otis was having Daryl move his truck to the other side of the road, a sure indication that he would be sticking around for a little while.
"That's the new hire? He's kind of adorable…" her mother's smile widened, Beth suspected because she'd noticed the pink tinge in her daughter's cheeks, "Ya know, in the way like he's got himself left out in the cold so often he doesn't notice it anymore."
Her mothers' were the eyes she needed to be most careful about. The others might be wrapped up in their own worlds enough that they wouldn't see that there was anything more to Daryl's arrival on the farm, but her mother was another story. Her sensitive perception had been both a bane and a boon to every member of their family. "Yeah, I get that vibe too," Beth responded to her mother after doing a quick, full body assessment—was she twiddling? Doing anything that might give away nerves?
"You weren't out here alone with him, were you?"
"Just for a minute," Beth thought her voice got a little too high and tried to reign it in with a cough that she was afraid her mother would be able to read, "I didn't wanna go inside right away 'cause of Shawn."
"You know the rules," Her mother squeezed her protectively, giving her a sideways frown. "Not unless your dad or Otis are around."
"Sorry, I wasn't thinkin'," Beth lied, "But what was I supposed to do, wait in the car?"
Her mom gave a snort of laughter at that, "We've got these rules for a reason, doodlebug. I'm sorry if they're a little inconvenient sometimes, I really am." She kissed the side of her head, "Can't let my baby girl get too close to the cute new hire."
Beth blushed at that, trying to hide her face away by pretending to be fascinated in something around the side of the house. "His name's Daryl," she said between barely loosed teeth, "and he seems like a good guy."
"I reckon you're right," her mother chuckled again, "If that's what you're reading, then good… but you know it ain't so much about that, as it's all about boundaries. This is our home, but it's also our business." It was usually her father who said things like this, but Annette seemed to have swallowed his words whole, "By and by, strangers come along and we've gotta make sure the lines don't get blurred. Being invited onto the farm doesn't mean being invited into the home. It's better for everyone and it's fair for everyone."
"Yeah, you're right," she knew that now was not the time to try and convince her mother that Daryl Dixon was any type of prospect. Her family didn't know him yet. She'd just have to be patient, and also… secretive. She wanted him here. She got him here. She was sure as hell going to do something about it. "I know you're right—just, like you said; inconvenient."
"Hmm," Annette tucked a few wild hairs back behind her daughter's ear, tugging on the lobe.
For a second, Beth bit her bottom lip to try and stop herself from getting one last word in. After an internal struggle she finally said, "But you know—I dated Jimmy for eight months and he was working here for some of that—"
"That was different," said Annette, firmly. "You know it was. You had two classes with him at school and we've known Jimmy's family for ages. Local boys who come to work for the harvest—fine, you can be alone with them. During the daylight hours. Outside. Not in your bedroom," she let out a short laugh at Beth's growing indignation. "You gotta let me tease you—it's my job."
"I thought that was Shawn's job?"
"He's my apprentice."
Rolling her eyes, Beth was ready to officially give up for the day, quietly reaffirming her previous conviction that she was going to have to be sneaky; getting to know Daryl better was going to involve some covert operations.
Daryl and Otis looked like they were preparing to head right out and get to work. Daryl stripped his jacket off and threw it in the back of his truck with the motorcycle. He'd hacked the sleeves of his shirt off and so she caught the merest glimpse of ink on the inside of one arm. She'd been right about him having at least one tattoo. In spite of her mother still watching her, she smirked.
"'Sides," said Annette, her tone changed from playful to serious so quickly that it gave Beth whiplash, "He's a bit old for you."
"You're right," she said again, but a note of sarcasm was already working its way into her voice, "how could I even think of carrying on with a man who might be some years older than me? Shameful," she fought a smile as her eyes shifted over to take in her mother's reddening face.
Annette's regard narrowed at her daughter. "Cheeky," but she laughed, "Alright, I'll make you a deal—when you reach your thirties, you have my permission to marry a widowed farmer in his fifties."
A storm was rolling in. The sun's light dimmed all at once. Beth glanced up at the sky and then at her mother. Together they headed back into the house to assess the damage. Once her mother's eyes weren't fixed on her any longer, Beth pulled her cell-phone out of her pocket and sent a text to Maggie.
The sun was beating down on their backs. Dave had already stripped his shirt off and had it half-way stuffed into his back pocket. He ripped it free and wiped a steady trickling of sweat from off his forehead. "Its times like this I miss Philly," he confessed.
Daryl was more or less used to being around guys who talked a lot. Dave was just another voice to fill the air, rarely saying much of interest, and requiring no feedback. Daryl felt free to keep working, digging out the posts of the fence that needed to be replaced.
"Well—not that Philly is specifically different, but more like I missed the air-conditioned life, ya know? Worked in a garage in Philly, 'til the boss and my lady kicked me out the same week. But one don't inform the other, right?" Dave chuckled darkly.
From the road, a small school-bus rolled closer. It wasn't from the district, for sure. By the looks of it, they'd let the kids take part in the paint-job, but over the top of the smattering of color and finger-painting was the moniker Little Learner's Weekend Club. Otis had mentioned off-handed that kids' groups came to see the farm from time to time and learn more about the animals and how things were run.
"Working in the garage," Dave kept talking, glaring up at the sky for a moment as he paused in shoveling to take a breath. "It was dirty, but at least it wasn't hot… where you headed?"
Barely pausing, Daryl finally looked up at his fellow farmhand, "For now, nowhere."
"Right," Dave snatched up his nearly empty water-bottle from the ground to get a drink, "'Spose that's me too. I keep thinking about Mexico in the back of my mind—but I dunno." After testing a few drops on his tongue, he unceremoniously tossed the rest of the water onto his neck, it was probably warm. "Come on, let's refill," Dave gestured to Daryl's own empty bottle.
Dave threw his soaked shirt back on during the short walk to the nearest well. The bus had parked and a group of about a dozen kids poured out. Daryl could see Hershel, Shawn and Beth coming to greet them. Beth waved enthusiastically at the kids. Even from a distance he could tell that she was wearing a big smile. Watching her like this tugged at him.
It was hard for him to explain to himself what he was feeling, or what he was doing. He wanted to understand, but it was like learning a new language. The day before when he'd held her hand, it almost felt like someone else had taken control.
All week he'd been consumed by fear and uncertainty. He'd forgotten to eat, barely slept. He just kept moving, going through the motions, trying to cover his tracks and look for his brother at the same time. He'd finally headed in the direction of the farm, cracked and breaking. It was all nearly unconscious, unaware behavior.
He didn't do well on his own.
He was still in tumult when he tried to use as few words as possible to explain a little bit about that night to Beth. He hadn't been prepared for her to react that way; compassion. When she touched him, everything slowed down and he'd wanted to return the simple gesture. For half a second he couldn't imagine himself being that way with her, and then he didn't need to, because his hand had acted for him; utterly unafraid when it came down to it.
But still actually terrified.
…Maybe he shouldn't have come here.
That doubt didn't last long under the beating light of the sun, with Beth ushering a dozen children towards the chicken coops. Where else would he go? There was legitimate work here, his brother knew where to find him, and it was safe and isolated.
All of that helped solidify his resolve to stay.
However, if he was being honest with himself, he would have stayed regardless. He wanted to be here.
He wanted to be close to her.
"We've got some baby chicks, that are just barely old enough that you can touch them, but only if you're very careful!" even across the distance, he heard Beth talking to the kids, her voice was drowned out in a hail of excited squeals and chatter.
An older woman at the back of the pack encouraged them to be quiet, "Boys and girls, what'd we talk 'bout on the bus? Be respectful and listen to Beth or ya won't get a turn to touch the baby chicks."
Dave smacked his arm to pull his attention back to the well. A smirk of his face told Daryl that he'd been staring too obviously at the girl, but Dave didn't comment on it, "Hold the bottle, I'll fill," he muttered.
They each took turns dousing their heads and getting their fill at the pump, then took their time heading back to their work. Their break for lunch felt like it had been days ago, but when Daryl checked the position of the sun, he figured they'd only been back to working for a couple of hours. Not nearly long enough to start complaining. All the same, it was hot. Dave called out to another farmhand who Daryl hadn't met yet—a heavy guy who was soaking wet under the sun.
"Hey Tony, ya feeling fresh?"
"Screw you, Dave."
Not wanting to play the introduction game again, Daryl took his water and ambled as casually as he could in the direction of the chicken coop, taking shelter under some shade, just outside the enclosure. He watched a bit of Beth's lesson from the back of the little crowd of anxious ten-year-olds.
The kids had taken their supervisor's advice and were all standing quietly, save for a pair of boys at the back who another adult had taken the liberty of standing between with a hand on each shoulder; but still they tried to poke at one another from behind her back.
At the front of the pack, Beth leaned down with a baby chick in her hands so all the kids could see it. "…No, the eggs that you eat for breakfast wouldn't become baby chicks if you put them under a lamp, but that's a good question. Only some eggs will hatch, not the ones you buy at a store and this is actually a very special lamp—can anyone tell me what its call?"
A little girl out front raised her hand that a shot into the air, "Incubator," she said before Beth even had the chance to look up at her.
"That's very good! What your name?"
"You can come touch the chick first Penny, but be very careful. Use soft fingers, like this."
As Penny came forward, Beth's eyes flickered up. The corner of her mouth pulling into a tiny smile as she caught Daryl's eye. There she went, stopping time again. He was a little better equipped to enjoy the effect now. For the moment, he forgot that she was a teenager and he was dirty old redneck. He forgot all the awkward moments they'd suffered together, the accusations and assumptions, the things that Merle said about her to get his mind reeling, he forgot his own guilt and was able, however briefly to bask in the simple fact that she was smiling for him. There didn't need to be any baggage to it—and it was like she'd put her arms around him all over again.
The heady moment ended abruptly with the sound of an approaching car. His eyes automatically shifted to the road as the golden Saturn pulled deftly into the shade in front of the house. Maggie Greene. He'd known some frightened people in his life, but he wasn't sure he'd ever felt this particular jolt of panic at the mere sight of someone before. Would she say anything to the rest of the family about him? He'd always known that it was a possibility, but he hadn't expected her to arrive so quickly. It had to be because of the situation with Shawn. His dropping out of school and coming home had prompted her to pay a visit.
Instead of going towards the house, she approached the chicken coop as well. Her father was standing in the shade of a tree nearby, watching from a distance, but he turned to greet his daughter when she got close enough. From the expression on his face it didn't look like he'd been expecting her. Maggie gave her father a one-armed hug. It might have been his imagination, but it seemed like her eyes found Daryl standing just outside the coop, as she said a few words to Hershel.
In a futile effort at retreat, Daryl strode back towards Dave. It was too soon after their meal to take a break anyway.
When he turned back to where he'd left Dave he found nothing but thin air. He'd vanished along with the other farmhand, Tony. He scanned the area but couldn't find them, and finally resigned to return to dig out the old fence on his own. He'd much rather have stayed and watched Beth try and teach the kids about chickens, but with both her father and her sister keeping watch, and it only being his second day on the job, he didn't want to push it.
He was about half-way back the field when he heard a voice call out "Hey, Daryl."
Over his shoulder he saw Maggie coming towards him. She was wearing a nice skirt and blouse again, carrying her shoes in one hand so that she could travel quickly across the fields in her bare feet. She must have run to catch him. He threw his eyes around, but no one else was close—just figures in the distance, exiting a chicken coop. Once again, he was alone with a Greene daughter, which was strictly forbidden.
Ashamed, he wished it was the other one.
As if reading his mind, Maggie narrowed her green gaze at him. "You and I need to chat," she crossed her arms, flipping her high-heeled shoes over one elbow.
"We gotta?" grumbled Daryl, peering past her to make absolutely sure that Hershel couldn't see what was going on; he was too far away and surrounded by a crowd of children.
"Beth ain't a child anymore, but she doesn't have my experience," said Maggie, raising her eyebrows. "I wanna make sure you're here to work'n that's all. She's a good girl, and I'll be nice enough to refrain from mentioning to daddy that you're a junkie drifter who man-handled his youngest, as long as you remember she's a good girl."
Shit. We're off to a hell of a start. "Go on and say everythin' you gotta say," he offered in a gruff voice.
Maggie's face darkened at that, for a moment he could visibly see her temper flaring up behind those pale eyes, but with a shallow hiss of a breath between her teeth, she somehow managed to reign it in. When she spoke again, she almost sounded civil. "I can usually trust her judgment. She's smart like that. She thinks you're alright."
Daryl couldn't do much more than shuffle uncomfortably on his feet and hoped that Dave turned up to derail this 'chat'.
"That's the only reason I didn't run you over. I know a lot of lawyers… could probably get away with it."
Having been on the receiving end of numerous threats, Daryl had picked up a sense for when someone was being genuine and when they were just posturing. Maggie's threat landed in a strange zone, he couldn't tell whether she was warning him, just trying to scare him or joking with him.
"Much obliged?" he furrowed his brow at her.
"I want to like you, but right now I can't," she glanced back at the kids group, now making their way towards where the horses were kept. "Someone's gotta air on the side of caution. From the looks of things, it won't be Beth."
He managed to meet her eyes and shook his head, "I ain't that guy."
A small frown appeared on Maggie's face, "Then what are you?"
His mind drew an absolute blank. He couldn't define himself on cue. He didn't think about it enough. "I'm just… here. Right now," he cringed, knowing he sounded ignorant and nervous.
Strangely, Maggie didn't seem to take it that way. She searched him, mouth a tight line for a moment, then with a sigh she said, "Well. Fine. Just know, if I can see it, they'll all pick up on it sooner or later; you look at everyone one way, and my sister, another."
I do think that Maggie will in fact ship the Bethyl on the show. I think she will ship it hard.
But, non-Apocalypse Maggie doesn't know Daryl real well yet... She's got worldly concerns.
Also, look, more cameos! So, confession, I did actually try and find Penny's official age. The Walking Dead Wiki says 11-12, but I've totally got trust issues with the Walking Dead Wiki. Maybe that's how old the actress was, or something? Anyway, I would have placed Penny at a younger age. In this, she's ten.
Thanks again to everyone who's been reviewing! I'm sorry I haven't replied to any reviews from these last few chapters, my internet access has been limited, but hopefully that will improve. I really appreciate getting feedback from you all, I hope you're enjoying the story:)
Wonderwall – Oasis