A/N: WARNINGS: Adultery (possibly), language, eventual smut, angst.
I don't even have any words. I'm sorry? I don't know what this is. I don't know who I am anymore or what I'm doing. But these MOTHERF***ING BETHYL AU IDEAS WILL NOT LEAVE ME ALONE. And, real talk, I hate rom/coms, chick flicks, HEA fairytale bullshit. So I blame these two beautiful human beings ENTIRELY.
This will be SHORT. HEAR ME, BRAIN? Probably not fully-developed, either, as with my other one-shot, experimental-ish stories... and this was supposed to be a one-shot but it's gotten out of control. I would like it to be 5 chapters or less, but I AM A GODDAMN LIAR!
I do not own nor am I in any way affiliated with TWD, AMC, or any of the songs/lyrics that I've borrowed for chapter/story titles.
Prevaricate is still my main project; but, alas, I am only human. And this thing is stronger than I am.
chapter 1: against my own advice
Beth Greene fumbled with the keys to her apartment. It'd been a long day at work followed by a long night of cocktails with a few coworkers. She was exhausted, though she knew that networking and being chummy and grabbing after-work drinks with peers was a great way to get to know some of her new colleagues.
She eased the door open as quietly as she could, hoping she wouldn't wake up her boyfriend, Zach. He worked on Wall Street in stocks and bonds and trading and had a hectic schedule of his own. They'd been seeing each other for almost a year when Beth had suggested that he move into her apartment. He'd been staying over practically every night anyway, and that meant he had to wake up even earlier every morning to go to his own place and get himself ready for work. He'd gotten lucky and found a subletter to take over the rent for his place fairly quickly. And he'd been living with Beth for a little over a month now.
It was Beth's first relationship since she'd moved to New York more than three years earlier. Her first relationship since her first relationship, anyway. It was nice. And she loved him.
They had a lot in common; both very ambitious and career-driven. Beth had recently begun working at her first job, paying her dues - with the hope of one day working her way up the ranks - at a marketing firm, fresh out of graduate school. She'd moved from Georgia. And it'd taken her awhile to get used to the different pace – of people, of cars, of life in general – here. And it'd taken her much longer to put her past away. To move on. To make friends. To be happy.
Zach was responsible and refined. Raised in the city. Smart. Caring. And, for some reason, he found Beth and her country roots charming.
They'd met through a mutual friend that Beth had known in graduate school. Beth was hesitant, because her last – her only other – relationship had ended badly. Painfully. And though she still carried more internal scars than she'd like to admit, she found that being with Zach, over time, had lessened the size and weight and depth of them.
She was surprised to see a dim light filtering into the end of the hallway of her small apartment. Coming from the bedroom. She thought she heard soft music playing. And did she smell something floral?
"Zach?" She called out, dropping her purse on the breakfast bar. The apartment was tiny. One bedroom, one small bathroom, a microscopic kitchen and a small living room area into which the foyer entrance opened. It was plain and beige and nothing special. Expensive. But it was her home, for now.
"Yeah, babe. Back here. Can you come here for a minute?"
She doffed her shoes, leaving the uncomfortable heels by the door, and made her way down the short hallway to the bedroom. She rounded the corner of the doorway and –
And then she froze in her tracks.
Rose petals were covering the small beige bed in the middle of the small beige bedroom. Soft music was, in fact, playing from the iHome on the nightstand.
And there was also Zach. Down on one knee, facing the bedroom doorway. In one of his hands he held a partially-opened black velvet box, which partially concealed the light reflecting off of the glittering diamonds on the ring.
The ring. The ring?
"Zach, what - ?" She started, choking a little on her words. She grabbed onto the doorframe to hold up the weight of her body, because her legs suddenly felt like they were made of paper.
"Bethany Ann Greene, I love you. I promise to love you for the rest of our lives. Will you marry me?" Zach asked, and his voice wasn't nervous. It was confident. Like he always sounded. And he was dressed in black dress pants and a dark grey button-down dress shirt, tie and all.
Beth felt a stinging behind her eyes as she took in the scene in front of her. And it was almost like a dream or a movie or a romance novel. And she was just hovering there, in the space above her head. Watching. Waiting.
And she didn't think too long before letting her lips widen into a huge smile and falling down onto her knees in front of him, crawling over to where he was knelt. She wrapped her arms around his neck.
"Yes," she finally answered, voice thick with tears. "Zach, yes. I love you."
"I love you, too." He took the gorgeous ring out of the box and slid it onto her finger.
And suddenly they were engaged.
And after they made love for the first time as an engaged couple, and she'd texted her best friends and her sister, Maggie, and she was laying naked in her bed in her apartment with her fiance, one thought sent a tingle of fear up Beth's bare spine.
Zach had never met her family.
There was no way in hell Beth could marry Zach without him meeting her family at least once. And, luckily, the very next weekend was free for both of them. So, as soon as Beth had expressed her concerns, Zach had smiled and produced two tickets to Atlanta. Before she'd even actually asked. And it made her heart sing inside of her chest.
"Babe, why are you so tense?" Zach asked as they waited for their luggage to circle around the convoy belt at the Atlanta airport.
It was true – Beth was feeling some tension. She hadn't been home - except for one Christmas several years ago - since she'd moved away for graduate school.
She was excited to see her family. Her momma, her daddy, her brother and sister. The farm.
But something was gnawing at her insides, leaving her belly raw and exposed to some kind of anxiety or dread or maybe it was just anticipation – but, whatever it was, she was fairly certain that, on some level, it had to do with him.
They pulled up to the farm a few hours later in their rental car. The pole light illuminated the driveway and the large yard and barn in the back. The porch light was on.
"Wow, this is so – " Zach started, whipping his head around this way and that as he put the car in park. "Country. Like out of a novel or a painting or something."
"It's home," Beth said, and she smiled then – and it seemed to penetrate through all of tension she'd been feeling.
The front door opened and Maggie came running out of the house, barefoot and beautiful, strands of her long brown hair falling loose from the messy bun atop her head. Beth opened the passenger door of the car and met her sister halfway between the car and the house.
"Beth! Oh my god! I can't believe it's really you! It's been so long!" The sisters embraced tightly. "Daddy and momma are beside themselves right now!"
Beth heard the crunching of the gravel that layered the driveway as Zach slowly approached the Greene sisters. Beth released her sister, turning toward Zach.
"You must be Maggie," he said, flashing her a toothy grin. Of course, he'd dressed in his signature formal wardrobe, profusely overdressed in comparison to Beth's simple jeans and ratty t-shirt and cowboy boots and Maggie's short overalls and tank top. It was a warm summer night and breathing in the humidity lingering in the air was like a purification or a cleansing for Beth.
"And you must be the future brother-in-law," she replied, extending a hand. "Come on, ya'll. Can't keep 'em waiting much longer."
They entered the house, old wooden floorboards groaning just like they always had, and walked toward the dining room. Zach reached out for Beth's hand as they walked through the small foyer area, following Maggie through the dimly-lit kitchen.
Beth's heart swelled with love and longing and the sense of being home when she took in the sight of her daddy, momma, and brother, all sitting in the old, high-backed chairs around the old dining room table. They were playing cards.
"Bethie!" Beth's mother, Annette, shrieked, standing immediately from the table and rounding the corner to pull Beth tightly into her arms. "Oh, sweetie. It's been almost three years! Do you realize that? Momma's missed ya so much, baby. Phone calls just ain't the same."
"I missed you too, momma," Beth said, feeling a hot tear roll down her cheek. She hadn't anticipated feeling quite so overcome with how much she missed this. Family. Home. It was easy to put it aside when she was in New York, working constantly and just living day by day. But now it was filling up the spaces in her heart that she hadn't even entirely known were empty.
Her momma looked the same. Dressed nicely but conservatively in a faded dress, apron still tired in place. Her hair, which had once been auburn and long and sleek, was still beautiful even with the interspersed strands of grey that'd appeared, and it was pinned up into a bun and soft tendrils framed and accentuated the softness of her round face.
"Daddy," Beth said, walking over to stand next to her father, who remained seated at the head of the table. He looked older; his hair white and thinning. But his smile was the same – the way it reached his eyes and overtook his entire face and made her smile in return, every single time, no matter what mood she may've been in.
"Doodlebug," he sighed. "You look beautiful. So grown up. We've missed ya, 'round here, my baby girl." He pulled Beth down and into his arms, kissing her lightly on the cheek.
"Baby sis," Beth's brother, Shawn, said, nodding his head at her as she released her embrace on her father.
Beth stuck her tongue out at her childhood arch-nemesis and then jogged around the table to wrap her arms around her brother from behind as he feigned disgust at her display of affection. And even he looked older. Which, of course, he was. But he was a man, now. Physically, at least. The color of his hair was a sandy shade, somewhere between Beth's and Maggie's. And it was short and messy – always messy. And his eyes were a rich brown and he'd been blessed with the olive skin tone that he shared with Maggie, while Beth was fair-skinned.
"Daddy, momma, Shawn – I want you to meet my –" Beth's words were stilted for a moment as she referred to Zach as more than her boyfriend, really, for the first time – "My fiancé, Zach Johnson."
Zach stepped forward into the dining room, stood confidently at the other end of the dining room table and flashed his most charming smile.
"Hello, everyone. So nice to finally meet you. I've heard so much about you all. Your home is magnificent," he said, walking around the table, cordially offering his hand in greeting to each of Beth's family members.
"We are so excited for ya'll," Annette said. "Can I get ya some food? Lemonade? Sweet tea?"
"I'd love some sweet tea, ma'am," Zach replied, wrapping an arm around Beth's waist.
"And once ya get that, sugar, I'd like to have a few moments to talk with Zach," Hershel said. He turned his eyes to Zach then, adding, "if you don't mind, that is."
"Of course, sir," Zach said, taking the glass of tea from Annette.
Hershel struggled to his feet from the old cherrywood dining room chair, grabbing his cane.
"Let's go into the parlor, have us a talk, son." He nodded toward the rest of his family members and led the way out of the dining room.
"Good luck!" Beth said, giggling. Zach turned around briefly, shooting her a nervous smile and a wave of his fingers.
Shawn left shortly thereafter to meet up with some friends, and Beth spent a few moments letting her mother and sister "ooh" and "aah" over the large rock adorning her ring finger. It felt strange, wearing it. And Beth supposed that that was normal.
"Momma, I'm gonna go see Nelly," Beth said, suddenly feeling the strong urge to check on her horse.
"She'll be so happy to see you," Annette said, kissing Beth's forehead. "Don't stay out too long, Bethie. I'll warm up some food an' get the guest bedroom made up for Zach."
"Guest bedroom? Momma, we live together. We're engaged," Beth said, sighing at her mother's ancient rule of the segregation of males and females – unless they were married – under her roof.
"You know the rule, hon. It's just for the weekend. Then ya'll can go back to livin' in sin," her mother shot her a knowing smile and made her way up the creaky wooden stairs to the second floor of the house.
"And I've gotta get home 'fore Glenn gets home from work and thinks I've left him again," Maggie said, rolling her eyes. Glenn was Beth's brother-in-law, and he and Maggie lived about twenty miles away on a small farm of their own. Beth had only been able to visit it once, but it was beautiful and the perfect place to raise a family - if they ever decided to start one.
"'Kay. Make him come see me tomorrow. Love you," Beth said, pressing a kiss to her sister's cheek.
"Will do. See ya tomorrow." Maggie walked toward the front door but turned back around just before reaching it, and whispered to her sister.
"Oh – and, Beth, I'm not sure if he's still here, half the time he parks his truck out on the field roads, but – uh – Daryl – he's been working late. Just a head's up."
Beth stiffened at the mention of his name, nodding her head jerkily even as she smiled and tried to act naturally.
As soon as she heard Maggie's car pulling out of the driveway, Beth opened the door and left the house, almost breaking out into a dead sprint toward the barn. Whether he was there or not, she couldn't wait another second to see her horse.
The barn door was slightly ajar and a dim light shone from between the crack left between the sliding doors. Which wasn't anything particularly unusual; she'd often left the light on for Nelly and the other horses, ever since she was a little girl.
She slid one heavy door open wider. Beads of sweat were now forming over her brow and along her hairline with the muggy temperature of the night.
She half-jogged over to Nelly's stall. Same stall she'd always had, since Hershel'd brought her home as an 18th birthday gift for Beth.
And it was like the horse had been standing there, just waiting for her, for the past three years.
Tears prickled her eyes as she approached the stall and placed both of her hands around the horse's face.
"Nelly! God, girl, I missed you so bad," Beth whispered to the horse. "I'm so sorry it's been so long. Bet you been wonderin' where I been. Why I left you. But I promise I'll never leave you, girl."
The horse nuzzled Beth a little - as much as a horse could nuzzle a person. And she wasn't sure if Nelly actually recognized her or missed her, but Beth had the distinct feeling that, if nothing else, her beloved horse hadn't forgotten about her. About the nights she'd spent out there with her, laying among the hay on the dirty floor, singing and talking and laughing to the horse like she were Beth's best friend.
"She's been actin' out, that's for sure." The deep, low voice that'd been forever etched into Beth's memory echoed quietly in the barn, startling her.
"Jesus Christ, Daryl! Is that you? What the hell are you doin'?" Beth whisper-yelled, clutching her chest. She whirled around and saw his form – and she'd never forget the shape of him, despite the years and miles that'd been stretched between them.
He stepped forward and out of the shadows, long dark hair obscuring half of his face. He wore a sleeveless shirt and dirty jeans and Beth tried so very hard not to let her eyes wander anywhere – to force them to stay on his face. His eyes. His blue eyes, made of fire and ice and everything that could burn her and freeze her all at once. And maybe that wasn't a great idea either, so she looked at her feet instead. The floor of the barn, covered in a disarray of hay and feed and mud.
"Workin'," he shrugged, pulling a cigarette from his pack and lighting it while keeping his eyes trained on Beth's face.
"It's late. And you're out here. Alone. In the barn. It's – creepy, Daryl." Beth's voice was a bit stilted, but she attributed that to the surprise of it all. At seeing him. At hearing his voice, after so long.
"It's work, Beth. Ain't creepy. The hell are you doin' here?" His tone was a bit clipped as he exhaled a thick cloud of smoke. His eyes didn't waver.
"I, uh – had a free weekend. Haven't been home since – "
"Three years ago come Christmas," he finished quietly.
"Yeah," she said softly, bringing her eyes up to meet his. "Long time."
"Ya look good," he said. And she knew him well enough – more than she knew anyone else, really, were she being honest – to know that he wasn't being flirtatious. Not overtly. But it didn't stop the blooming heat that she felt spreading over her neck and up onto her face.
If he saw it, he didn't say anything about it. Just kept talking. "Nelly's been better. Was sick, a while back. Tried callin' ya. Guess ya changed your number. Didn't wanna ask your folks. Been stayin' late with her, makin' sure she's doin' a'right." He said, walking a bit closer to Beth and where she stood next to her horse.
"Oh, um. Yeah, I mean – no. I still have the same number. Guess you didn't leave a message, or maybe my phone erased it or somethin'," she said, turning her eyes and attention back to Nelly.
Daryl didn't say anything. Just leaned up against one of the poles that extended from the ceiling to the concrete floor of the barn. Kept smoking his cigarette.
"So, you're just – just working here now?" She asked, keeping her eyes on Nelly as she combed her fingers through the horse's mane.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him shake his head.
"Nah, still doin' some construction work on the side. But mostly I'm here. Watchin' after your pops. Acts like he's still in his twenties some days. An' your damn brother ain't much of a help."
"Yeah, he never was. Still surprises me that he's still hangin' around here. Would'a figured him to be the one to move to some city." Beth smiled a little. Shawn was a good person; he was just never interested in any of this. Not a hunter or a farmer. Couldn't cook or clean for shit. Most productive days they'd had as a family was when he was out on the town with his friends. But they all knew nothing was quite the same without him hanging around.
Beth picked a brush up from the bucket on the ground and eased open the stall door, stepping inside to be closer to Nelly as she groomed her. She was as beautiful as Beth remembered, light brown fur and an even lighter mane and tail. Small diamond-shaped patch of white fur between her eyes.
Absentmindedly, Beth had begun humming as she continued to groom her horse. And she couldn't remember the last time she'd felt this much peace. Even though that thought alone was ridiculous, with Daryl Dixon standing right there, mere feet away, observing her.
She moved to walk around the back of Nelly to get to her other side – which was risky, but she'd done it a million times before. But as she circled around, the horse became agitated, kicking her hind legs at Beth's body and sending her into the hard wooden paneling at the back of the stall.
"Shit, Nelly – " Daryl said, still in that yell-whisper.
Beth corralled herself in the back corner of the stall. Nelly'd gotten one pretty harsh kick in but as soon as Daryl wrenched the stall door open and put his hands around the horse's snout, she began to calm down.
"'S okay, girl," he whispered, voice uneven. His eyes flicked to Beth, who was watching him as she crouched over, feeling the pain in her gut from the horse's kick.
Daryl slowly made his way over to Beth, reaching one hand out while he kept the other on the horse's flank, stroking her fur softly and gently.
She hesitated, but quickly realized that Nelly had become more comfortable around Daryl. More comfortable than she was around Beth. Which sucked and felt altogether like another kind of kick to the gut. But it made sense.
She grabbed Daryl's hand and he hoisted her entire body toward him in one quick motion, and she slammed up against his side.
He slung his arm around Beth's lower back and she leaned into him so that he could take on some of her weight as they slowly made their way back to the stall door. Daryl continued whispering at Nelly in that calm, rough voice of his, even as he opened the door with his one free hand and lightly pushed Beth outside of it.
Beth doubled over with her hands on her knees, heaving in deep breaths. She guessed it was a delayed reaction to getting the wind literally kicked out of her.
Daryl latched the stall door shut and came over to Beth's side, resting a hand on her mid-back, rubbing gentle but hesitant circles.
"Y'alright?" he asked, crouching his face down next to hers.
Beth gasped in a breath. "Yeah, yeah, 'm fine."
"Then stand up," Daryl said, pulling at her shoulders.
"Ugh, fuck," she moaned at the stretching sensation of her abdomen and the muscles underlying the skin there as she stood.
"Whoa, ain't heard anythin' like that come out of that mouth in a long ass time," he quipped, but she could see his lips shift from a smirk to a frown. "Shit, girl. Bleedin'." Beth looked down then and saw the small circle of blood in the middle of her shirt.
He started to pull up at the hem of her shirt when she finally came to her senses.
"Stop. Stop. I can do it myself," she said, batting his hands away.
"You can barely fuckin' breathe, Greene. Just c'mere. Got a first aid kit back here still. Need to get it cleaned an' covered." Daryl yanked her by the arm to the empty stall at the other end of the barn, where they used to hang out. And smoke cigarettes. And make out. And –
"Stop thinkin'. Just gonna fix up your damn wound. Ain't gonna bite ya." He grumbled, still pulling her along with him.
They reached the back stall and he jerked his head at the ground, so Beth slid down against the back of the door until she was sitting, leaning up against it.
Daryl was digging through the various kits, finally finding the one with first aid supplies.
He turned toward her and his eyes caught hers. Just for a moment. But, for just that moment, something seemed to spark in the air. Something tangible yet invisible and it was like thick wind and sweet heat, and it didn't just spark in the air. It sparked inside of her. In her bones. In her blood. Something that made Beth suddenly and desperately want to get up and run. Back to New York. Further, maybe.
"Lift it up," he murmured, crouching down beside her and interrupting her thoughts. "An' lay flatter."
She followed his instructions, reminding herself that he was just helping her patch up her wound. Probably less weird this way, anyway.
She lifted her shirt up, exposing her belly and the small scrape that'd been the consequence of the impact of Nelly's hoof. It was minor. She'd always bled a lot, even with small paper cuts and bumps. Which came in handy when she was a child and she and Maggie would get into physical altercations.
Daryl kept his eyes on the wound as he cleaned it methodically.
"Ow, damnit! That burns!" She hissed when he applied the antiseptic ointment.
"Burn a lot worse if it got infected," he shrugged.
He leaned his face down then, and his mouth hovered just inches above the skin of her abdomen. And Beth wasn't sure what the hell he was doing –
But then she felt his cool breath over the burning wound. He was blowing on it. Softly. Slowly. Shakily. Even as he continued to rub in the ointment, just a little more, with his fingers. And Beth felt a rush of emotions hitting her everywhere, all at once. She felt heat, hot and intense and mindless, unfurling inside of her and it made its way to her outsides, causing her to tremble – just slightly. So slightly that maybe he didn't notice.
She'd loved this man once. More than anything. And he'd let her go; no, he'd practically forced her to go. To move on. To quit calling him. She repeated those words and those thoughts in her brain, in her heart, in a never-ending loop, like a mantra.
"Better?" He asked softly, finally lifting his eyes to hers.
She felt the heat creeping up her throat and prayed to some god that it wouldn't redden the skin of her face.
Not trusting her voice, she simply nodded, locking her eyes onto his.
He turned around briefly and then returned with a gauze dressing, which he applied and taped to her skin with unexpected delicacy. Smoothed out the edges with his rough fingers.
She could feel the sweat forming more thickly now, dripping down in between her breasts even as she lay in a semi-supine position with her head slightly propped up on a pile of hay. And she wasn't certain that she could blame it entirely on the weather or the temperature in the barn or her injury -
He grabbed for the hem of her shirt, letting his fingertips linger on her skin just for a moment – a moment that may've been longer than absolutely necessary - as he pulled it back down to cover her exposed skin. And his touch made her skin tingle and her heart race. And it was so wrong. So, so wrong.
But her mouth had fallen half open and her breaths were quicker, maybe audible. Maybe visible. And she knew he knew.
Because she could see his own strong chest heaving in deep breaths. His eyes, struggling to stay on her face. His hands, clenched into fists and resting on his thighs.
"'M so glad you came back, Greene. I been waitin'. Three fuckin' years, I been waitin'." Daryl's voice was suddenly a lot quieter. Rougher. Grains of salt and gravel that ran down her spine.
"But, Daryl – you –" Beth started, confusion bubbling from her heart to her throat to her voice as she spoke.
"Don't, Beth. We both know why I did what I did. But, fuck, I was wrong. I can't – " He ducked his head then, and Beth remembered this part. A precursor to the times when he'd revealed more than he'd intended. Like when he'd told her he loved her for the first time, so many years earlier. "I can't fuckin' stop. Thinkin'. About you. I've tried. But I haven't. Since ya left."
"Daryl," Beth finally choked out. "I have to tell you –"
"Oh my god, what happened?" Beth heard Zach's voice, filled with concern, from the top of the narrow stall door. And she didn't understand how neither she nor Daryl had heard him – or her father – enter the barn. She hadn't heard a footstep or a voice among the thoughts and feelings rushing into her head like the waves of a tsunami. And apparently Daryl had been just as caught up in it all.
And they were lucky they hadn't drowned.
"Oh," she said, quickly pulling herself into a sitting position with a light groan of pain. "Nothin', I'm fine. Nelly's a little feisty, kicked me. My own fault, shouldn't have been walkin' round the back of her like that."
Zach furrowed his perfectly-shaped eyebrows, and Beth knew the puzzlement there was genuine. He knew nothing about horses. About what to do and not do with them.
Hershel said nothing at first, just let his eyes subtly slide from Daryl's face to his daughter's and back again.
"What're ya still doin' here, Dixon? Said you could go home hours ago, son." He finally said, leaning a bit more of his weight onto his cane as he peered down into the stall.
"Was gettin' ready to go. Heard someone stumblin' around, saw Beth. Figured I oughtta stay an' supervise her an' Nelly, what with that horse goin' through her damn crazy spells." Daryl said as he stood up, wiping his hands on his jeans.
"Glad you were still here then," Hershel nodded. And the inflection in his voice was odd to Beth, but she didn't have time to think about that. Not now. Because Zach was here. And she hadn't really ever imagined a scenario like this, let alone prepared herself in any way for the meeting and introduction of the two of these men – the two men most important in her life, besides her daddy and brother.
Beth stood up too, then, shaking the hay out of the blonde strands of her hair as she opened her mouth to speak -
"Pardon me," Zach said, beating her to the punch. His charming smile was in place as he addressed Daryl. "I don't believe we've met. I'm Zach. Beth's fiancé."
Daryl's eyes widened – only fleetingly, and probably Beth was the only one that'd noticed – and he glanced briefly at Beth. And she felt the pain radiating from his eyes and into her entire body.
"Yeah, sorry, I would'a mentioned that sooner, but then Nelly went crazy and I didn't quite get the chance, and – " She started, words getting caught in the sudden viscosity of her saliva, the sudden weakness of her tongue, the sudden inadequacy of the breath inside her lungs.
"Name's Daryl," he said quietly, cutting her off. "Dixon. Just a farmhand, old friend of Hershel's. Tryin' to keep your future pops-in-law in line."
Zach smiled enthusiastically. "Well, I thank you for taking such good care of him and his farm and my poor, clumsy Beth."
"'S nothin'," Daryl said, shifting his eyes to the ground and then – again, just briefly – to Beth's.
"Well, we best get outta here, 'less we wanna rile up any more o' these old stallions," Hershel said, pivoting back around and walking with a slow cadence toward the door of the barn.
"Zach," Beth said, "why don't you go on, help daddy inside? I'm just gonna help Daryl close everythin' up."
"Sure thing, babe. I'm going to take a shower. Find me before you go to bed." He leaned over the top of the stall door, palming one side of Beth's face as he pressed his lips to hers as he whispered, "you're such an adorable klutz."
He looked over at Daryl, then. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Dixon. Hopefully I'll be seeing you around again over the next few days."
Zach walked off, leaving Beth and Daryl alone. And she wasn't sure why she'd felt the need to dismiss Zach. She had nothing to explain to Daryl. They weren't together. Not anymore. Hadn't been for years. Hadn't been anything for years. But, for some reason, she felt like she needed to.
"I was gonna tell you," she whispered, keeping her eyes on the ground, tucking the hair on one side of her head behind her ear.
She felt his hand on hers, lifting it up into the dim light cascading over them. Her left hand. She tipped her head up slightly, watching him with curiosity as he studied her hand - her ring - twisting it this way and that in the light.
"'S pretty," he mumbled, keeping his face down. "Better than anythin' I could'a got you."
"Daryl, please. Don't. We just. Our lives – they – we went down different paths." She knew her voice was breathy, and she felt a sudden desperation for him to be okay. Okay with this. With them. Honestly, she'd missed him too. Not just their relationship. But their friendship. They'd been friends – the best of – at one time, before they'd been more. And she had to hope that they could get back to that. There'd been something missing in her life since she'd left. And, yes, that hollowed emptiness was mostly created by the separation and isolation from her family and her hometown and the life that she had always known. But she'd have been lying if she didn't admit that he was also a significant part of that.
"'Cause of me," he said, releasing her hand and bringing his own up to his mouth so he could chew on his thumbnail. A habit he'd had since they'd met, when Beth was a senior in high school and Daryl had just moved to town with his brother, and probably even before then.
"No. Not 'cause of you. I moved away. Couldn't expect you to wait around. Was stupid of me to even try to live out that fairytale," she said, inwardly scoffing at herself. She'd been twenty-two when she'd left home after she'd earned her undergraduate degree. She and Daryl had been together for so long, it didn't even occur to her that anything would change. That distance or time would or could change anything.
But Daryl had insisted that they stop what they were doing. Because "long-distance relationships don't last. And I ain't gonna have you runnin' back home to me every damn chance you get – ain't worth it. Not when you should be studyin'. Experiencin' the world, meetin' new people. Not when you deserve so much more than all of this." And none of her tears or pleas or promises to love him forever had changed his mind. And it had fucking devastated her. And he wouldn't entertain the thought of her looking for another school around Atlanta. Because NYU had been her dream. Even when she'd screamed "fuck my dreams! you're my future! I want you more than any other dream!
And he was right. It'd hurt for a long time. She'd had no desire to meet anyone new, in the beginning. No desire to make friends. No desire to look for any semblance of love, because, then, she'd thought that it could only happen once. But then she found Zach. And now they were engaged.
"Wasn't stupid, Beth," Daryl said, shaking his head. He lifted his eyes to hers and sighed heavily. "I was fuckin' stupid. And I'll live with it. 'Cause I gotta. And it'll make it easier, for me if - if you're happy."
She felt a stinging behind her eyes – the source of which she couldn't quite comprehend or discern definitively. He was being kind. And vulnerable. And so many things she wished he could've been before. Because there was a time when she would've waited. All he would've had to say is that he wanted her to. But, instead, he'd said "I don't want you anymore. I don't want you to wait. I ain't gonna." And now it was too little, too late.
She sucked in a breath, turning toward the door of the stall.
"I am happy, Daryl."
Beth was awoken the next morning by a weighted dip in her mattress behind her. Zach sure did have some balls, sneaking in here –
"My favorite sister-in-law!" Glenn almost-squealed, wrapping his arms around Beth from behind.
She flopped over onto her other side to face him, excitement coursing through her blood.
"Oh my god! Glenn!" She said, wrapping her arms around her brother-in-law.
"Look at you, baby Greene! All grown up!" He continued, wide smile overtaking his face and eyes.
"And I'm gonna get married!" Beth flung her left hand out, twisting her wrist around to make the sparkles dance in the early morning light shining through her bedroom window.
"I heard," he said. "So where is the son-of-a-bitch? Hidin' him in your closet?"
"You're insane, Glenn Rhee. You know damn well he's in the guest bedroom, where you spent many a night 'fore you and Maggie got married."
"Yeah, god, Mama Greene is so old-fashioned. Poor guy. Should I go give him a surprise morning spooning, too?" He laughed.
"Oh, god. I think he's been tortured enough. Daddy cornered him last night already, I assume givin' him some version of the talk."
"Then he definitely needs some spoonage," Glenn said, smiling. "Well get your ass up, Beth Ann. We're day drinkin' while your pops takes Zach out."
"Excuse me?" Beth asked. This information was new to her.
"C'mon, you know your dad. They're gonna go out to the shootin' range. Hershel's gotta let the guy know that, despite his frail appearance, he can still shoot a gun straight at his dick if he fucks with his baby girl!"
Glenn kissed Beth on the cheek and bounced out of the bed, whistling loudly as he opened her bedroom door and walked out into the hallway.
"Oh, fuck," she sighed to herself. If Zach made it through this weekend alive, she might just marry his ass next weekend.
"Have fun, ya'll!" Beth yelled, waving at Zach and her dad as they climbed into his old pick-up truck. Zach had been a bit nervous when Hershel had come to him with the plans of the day, but he'd manned up and agreed.
"Just in case your dad shoots me," Zach yelled out the passenger window, "I love you, Beth!"
Beth laughed. "Love you too!"
Maggie, Glenn, and Beth stood on the porch, watching as the men pulled away. Shawn was hungover and apparently sleeping it off in the basement. Annette was out shopping for her book club meeting that'd be taking place later that evening. She'd asked Beth to come along with her – and she almost had, but then she'd seen the mischievous arched eyebrow on her sister's face.
"A'right," Maggie said, playful grin plastered across her face. "Let's go boozin'!"
An hour and two beers later, Beth was buzzed.
She, her sister, and brother-in-law had parked their asses in a corner booth at the only bar within a twenty-mile radius. It was a total hole-in-the-wall but Beth had always loved it. Though she'd generally avoided drinking there. They all usually avoided it if they knew they'd be interacting with Hershel, who was a recovering alcoholic.
But she hadn't seen any of her family in nearly three years. And she missed her sister and Glenn so badly. So she'd decided to be a little selfish for once and she'd pushed back the thoughts of her father's lifelong struggle, bought some extra cinnamon-y chewing gum and breath mints, and nodded and laughed in excitement as they'd headed for The Watering Hole.
"So, I mean, why now?" Glenn asked, downing a shot of some amber-colored liquid that apparently burned his throat as well as his eyes. He began coughing immediately as tears rolled down his cheeks.
"What d'ya mean?" Beth asked.
"Why get engaged now? I mean, ya barely know the kid."
"Well," Beth started, truly not sure exactly how to answer this particular question. It was one that'd never been asked. She'd never been forced to consider it, really. "I mean, we've been together over a year, Glenn. And – I guess – he asked. And I said yes?"
Glenn busted out in loud laughter, and he had the kind of laugh that made everyone else around him laugh. Including Maggie, who was shooting pool at a table on the other side of the small bar.
"Well, just make sure y'ain't just settlin'," Glenn slurred. "Plenty of time to call it off. Hell, thought your sister was gonna call it off right up until I saw her sexy ass walkin' down that aisle toward me."
Beth rolled her eyes. Maggie and Glenn had been together since they were both in high school. They were madly in love. They fought, of course, as all couples did - and Maggie could be quite intimidating (and, probably more accurately, a Spiteful Bitch, which was one of Beth's favorite nicknames for her sister) when she wanted to be - but Beth had never doubted the truth and love upon which her sister and brother-in-law's relationship – and marriage – had always been built.
The door of the bar opened then, letting in the golden rays of midday sunlight, and Beth turned her head to see which patron had decided to join the group of – what? – 5 or 6 people total who were currently in the bar.
And of course it was him.
And she immediately felt her chest tighten up and a volcano of butterflies erupt deep in her core, licking hotly along the sides of her belly like magma coated in sugar. And it was a strange reaction. It was unsettling, but she felt less unsettled that it was mostly just a physical reaction.
Because she wasn't so far removed that she couldn't admit that he was still completely sexy. Always had been. And even if she didn't know – somewhere, deep inside her – what he sounded like and looked like when he was coming or the way his eyes pierced and cut when he said I love you, Beth Greene, she'd still find him attractive. She'd still be attracted to him, physically. And that wasn't wrong. Because it couldn't be helped. Right?
He was wearing dirty jeans and another one of his - per usual - dark, sleeveless, button-down shirts. Hair was a greasy mess and falling into his face. Face was scruffy.
"Yo, Dix! Dix-awwwn!" Glenn yelled over the music – which was entirely unnecessary given the lack of people at the bar at the moment.
Daryl turned his head, spotting Glenn and Beth. He ordered a beer at the bar near the front and began walking over toward the table at which the two were sitting.
"The fuck's this? Family reunion?" He asked by way of greeting, half-smirk in place.
"It is now!" Glenn said, flinging his scrawny arms around Daryl's neck.
Daryl shifted his eyes to Beth's questioningly as he patted Glenn's head.
She smiled a little, shrugging. "He's a few shots deep," she whispered.
Daryl nodded, smiling and locking an arm around Glenn's head, mussing his hair with a dirty fist.
And Beth had to look down. To avert her eyes from his arms. From the sculpted ridges of his triceps and biceps that seemed to call to her like a siren every time he moved. Jesus, what happened to her self-control? She'd only had two beers.
He released Glenn, who then wandered over to the pool table. Beth watched as he approached Maggie from behind, grabbing her ass in his hands and squeezing. Maggie jumped and whipped her body around, probably preparing to smack whoever'd taken the liberty to touch her that way. But then she saw it'd been Glenn and she shoved her body forward and into his. And then they were making out. And Beth shifted her eyes to the ground.
Daryl took Glenn's seat, just across the high-top table from Beth. And one of his knees brushed one of hers as he sat down, and it almost made her gasp out loud. And why would her body just not fucking cool it?
"Ya lit?" He asked quietly, taking a drink of his beer.
Beth shook her head – both in response to his question and as a warning to her body, over which she apparently no longer had any control. "Nah. Was a little buzzed, but drunk Glenn always takes care of that for me."
He huffed. And it was almost a laugh, but not quite. And the air had become thick, between and around and above them.
"He here?" Daryl asked, keeping his eyes on the bottle of beer in front of him as he peeled back the label with a finger.
Beth blinked a few times. Trying to decipher what exactly he meant. He rarely asked simple, one-layered questions. And she knew that. She couldn't not know that.
"No. With daddy. Shootin' range," she said, voice low.
Daryl nodded, releasing the bottle's label in favor of biting at his thumb.
"Good ol' future son-in-law treatment," he said. And his tone wasn't exactly sad. But it was something.
"'M sure Zach's pissin' himself. Ain't even seen a gun, I don't think. He's very anti-gun," Beth said, hoping to lighten up the conversation.
"And just how the hell d'you end up with a guy like that?" Daryl asked.
"Not every guy has to be a gun-slingin', huntin', farmin' country boy," she replied quickly. And she'd heard the sharp edge in her own voice. And she hadn't intentionally meant for there to be any edge, though this conversation was dancing along some invisible boundary that she couldn't quite define. But it didn't make her feel comfortable.
"Didn't say nothin' bout every guy. Asked how the hell you ended up with a guy like that." He'd finally lifted his eyes to hers. And they weren't only on her eyes, not necessarily. Or maybe they were. But Beth could feel them everywhere. Outside her. Inside her.
"I need a damn drink," she muttered.
She jumped off the high barstool, almost rolling her ankle in the process. But she recovered quickly and stalked off to the bar without giving Daryl a second glance.