Daryl woke to a quiet prison. The only time it was ever this quiet was the middle of the night or the middle of the day. The sunlight filtering told him which one he'd woken too. He groaned and stretched his stiff body. He hadn't intended to sleep this long but he supposed he needed the rest. He had the cot to himself which didn't surprise him. Beth was up and doing something to help out as per usual.
Daryl knew he'd done his bit by taking the night shift but he couldn't shake that feeling of guilt, like he wasn't contributing enough. Beth would tell him he was being silly. Daryl just felt a persistent need to prove himself to this group. He'd never given a rat's ass what people thought about him before but now that people seemed to like him and want him around, it made him determined to justify their decision to do so.
Merle would have a choice few things to say if he could hear inside his head. His brother would have mocked him relentlessly for bending over backwards to impress these people. But in a sense this group was his family now. He spared a thought for his brother. He wished him well but for the first time, Daryl admitted to himself that he would be happy if Merle never stumbled back into his life again. He loved his brother and that kind of hoping was probably going to send him to hell but Daryl would hate to mess things up and Merle would always be the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons.
Rubbing his face with his hands, he rolled out of the bed. There were things that needed to be done. They may not be able to go charging off in search of justice just yet but there were plenty of jobs that needed to be completed in the interim. For starters, their fortifications needed to be improved tenfold. It wasn't just walkers they were trying to keep out now, it was people who could think and strategise. They needed to make their prison a challenge not worth attempting.
Daryl walked briskly down the stairs, flushed with determination and purpose. He was at his best with something to do. He was a bit hungry but nothing that he couldn't work with for a few hours. He stopped dead when he found the common room deserted except for one person. Hershel.
Daryl's heart immediately raced a little faster and he scolded himself for being such a pussy. The man only had one leg, damnit. Hershel was reading a book, absorbed in the pages and unaware of Daryl's presence. His naturally light tread had worked in his favour once more and he knew it would be a simple matter of skirting around and Hershel would be none the wiser.
Something kept him frozen to the spot. Daryl loved Beth, had said as much to nearly every single person in the prison much to his chagrin. The only person he hadn't talked to yet was Hershel. Daryl respected Hershel and he hadn't expected to when he first met the man. He seemed stubborn, set in his ways and naive about the new world order. But the man had been willing to protect his own and kept a calm head in a crisis. He'd endured one hell of an injury but instead of moaning and laying blame, he'd been thankful for the extra time he now got to spend with his daughters. Hershel was a survivor. There wasn't much higher a compliment Daryl Dixon could think up.
Daryl cleared his throat and Hershel glanced up from his book, not looking the least bit surprised to see Daryl hovering awkwardly a few meters away. Daryl did wonder then if his obliviousness had been a pretence and he was just waiting to see what Daryl would do. Now with Hershel's calm gaze pinning him, Daryl was lost for words. He was never much good at explaining himself and he desperately wanted to articulate what Beth meant to him so that her father could have some peace of mind. Even if Hershel didn't think he was good enough for his daughter which, let's face it, was pretty likely, at least he'd know that Daryl wasn't using her or going to hurt her.
"Why don't you take a seat?" Hershel offered, voice still even.
Daryl swallowed and complied cautiously. He instinctually patted his various weapons even thought this wasn't an occasion where he'd have cause to use them. It was just a nervous habit. Hershel must have noticed because the right side of his mouth twitched.
"Was there something you wanted to say, son?"
"Figured I owed you a conversation," Daryl began, dragging his eyes up from the table to meet Hershel's stare.
"I figured I'd be the one tracking you down," Hershel teased lightly.
"I can probably guess what you're thinkin' and what you might be wanting to say t'me."
"I doubt it."
"You probably thinking I'm too old and no good for Beth and you'd be right," Daryl said self deprecatingly.
Hershel's eyes creased with confusion. "I was older than my wife, both of 'em. Your age doesn't much concern me."
That surprised Daryl. He had never really thought about it but he supposed that would have been true. "If it ain't my age, then you can't be pleased that your daughter's taken up with a redneck?" Daryl didn't know why but he almost sounded like he was provoking Hershel. He didn't mean to, he was just naturally antagonistic.
"Don't think much of your language sometimes, Daryl but I'm hardly going to protest on the grounds of a socio-economic divide these days. I'm concerned you don't know what you're getting into."
"How'd you mean?" Daryl asked, trying not to sound too dumb.
Hershel leaned back and crossed his arms. "I'm gonna guess you don't have a lot of relationships in your past."
Daryl shook his head slowly, unsure of the relevance of this line of conversation.
Hershel sighed. "I'm not a fool or naive, son. I know how you got those marks on your back."
Daryl stiffened instantly, eyes lowering into a glare. He wasn't prepared to discuss his childhood with Hershel, he had barely talked about it with Beth.
"My daddy preferred words as his weapon of choice. Didn't think I'd thank him for his restraint until I saw your back."
Daryl resisted the urge to lash out. Hershel was telling him that he had some insight into what he'd endured. Maybe it hadn't been as bad but a spade was a spade and abuse was abuse.
"That kinda thing leaves a mark on your soul, and it's not your fault but it's a part of you. I turned to drinking and you got angry."
Daryl had been angry. For a lot of years and a lot of reasons. Life had been one fuck up after another and then the dead had started walking around and Daryl had just given it up. He'd not stopped fighting to survive but he'd started to let go of his anger, little by little. He still wasn't a calm man, he'd probably always have blood that ran a little warm but he wasn't the same young buck that'd fly off the handle any more.
"Are you saying I don't deserve t'be happy?" Daryl asked tentatively.
"No!" Hershel's answer was resounding. "That's not even close to what I'm saying. You went through hell and you're still a good man." Hershel paused to consider his words. "My concern is you decide that it's all too much, that'll you'll pull away and leave my Beth heartbroken, probably yourself too."
"I'd die before hurting Beth," Daryl swore. He felt a little embarrassed moments after, he wasn't the type of man who made grand declarations.
Hershel appeared to be grinning again. "I believe you. I don't want to get in the way of the pair of you. I think you love my daughter and I know what you're willing to do to keep her safe and there's nothing more I could want for my little girl. But I do have one request."
"Shoot," Daryl gestured for him to continue, because frankly this conversation had gone as far off script as he could imagine. He'd anticipated a few threats and parental growls but not this uncanny understanding.
"If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, that's life. But if all it is, is that you're scared, don't let that be a reason to ruin whatever you two have."
"I'm past being scared of Beth," Daryl claimed and it was true. He'd gone through the guilt and the resistance and the disbelief and he was still here. "Long as I draw breath, I'm gonna be there for her."
"That's all anyone can hope for these days," Hershel agreed, sounding morose. He patted Daryl awkwardly on the shoulder. "Now get along so I can return to my reading."
Daryl knew he was being dismissed but in a kindly way. He nodded at Hershel, who had already returned to reading before making an exit.
Beth was eating between Carol and T-dog. T-dog was taking bites in between fiddling with some kind of mechanical contraption that Beth didn't recognise. She didn't want to ask and have her dinner weighed down by technical talk that she couldn't even begin to understand. She had more important things to consider. She had spotted Rick, Glenn and Daryl talking in hushed tones as they made their way outside, walking the opposite direction to food. Their actions made her suspicious and as much as she wanted to run after them and demand answers, she knew if she was patient, Daryl would share it with her when he was ready.
"Penny for your thoughts?" Carol asked, elbowing Beth gently in the side of the ribs.
"A whole penny? But how would I decide what to spend it on?" Beth quipped. The joke came out a little sharp edged and Carol lifted her eyebrows.
"I'm sorry," Beth immediately apologised, "I don't know what got in to me."
Carol shrugged, her easy smile still in place. "A lot of things have happened lately that would stress anyone out."
"Shit!" T-dog swore and both women jumped. He was staring at whatever he was walking on. He put down his food and walked off muttering without sparing a backward glance. Beth and Carol exchanged a glance before divvying up his remaining food between them.
"Serves him right for not minding his food better," Carol said around her first mouthful of stolen food. Beth didn't even feel guilty.
"Can I ask you something?" Beth asked abruptly.
"Sure," Carol allowed.
"Do you like Daryl?"
"Sure," Carol said. "He's a good man and after what he did for Sophia, I'd trust him with anything."
Blushing, Beth shook her head. "I meant, like a crush," she elaborated, hating having to use the word crush.
"Oh. Why? Are you done with him?"
"No," Beth declined quickly.
Carol's eyes were gleaming with a mischievous light. "I like Daryl just fine but I don't have any interest in him that way."
Beth nervously smoothed her hair behind her ears, regretting asking such a personal question. Carol took note of her stricken expression and laughed.
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I'm an idiot?" Beth suggested weakly. "I thought maybe you'd been flirting with him."
"And you wanted to protect your territory?"
"If I say yes, am I gonna sound pathetic?" Beth asked.
"No," Carol said patting her arm. "I did notice he was good looking but I think of him as a brother more than anything. He has the emotional maturity of a pine cone," Carol said drolly. She glanced at Beth appraisingly and added, "Had the emotional maturity of a pine cone. You make him a better person."
Beth's blush reignited at the compliment. She was inordinately pleased that Carol had been so reassuring, even if she was a little horrified that she'd asked in the first place. Thankfully Carol had handled it elegantly and put Beth's mind at rest.
Beth got it into her head to thank the other woman when the men returned and Beth knew Daryl well enough to know that he was keyed up about something. He was looking quite stubbornly at the wall behind their heads, not chancing an opportunity to meet any of their eyes. Rick tool to the centre of the room, claiming everyone's attention.
"More bad news?" Andrea asked from her spot next to Lori.
That question threw Rick off and he threw a startled glare in Andrea's direction.
"Not exactly. We all know the problem and that it has to be dealt with. Glenn and Daryl have volunteered to go on a scouting mission."
Rick used the word 'mission' like they were in a spy movie, like Daryl and Glenn were James Bond and Jason Bourne, invincible and equipped. Beth's breath felt like fire as it forced its way in and out of her body. Now she understood why Daryl was shifting from foot to foot. He had made this decision without even talking to her. She wanted to yell at him and throw a tantrum right here in front of so many prying eyes but she kept it together. They would talk about this in private later. He couldn't even claim to be on night guard because Maggie was already out there with Michonne in the guard tower. Glenn could have the pleasure of telling Maggie this little piece of news.
Other people protested, vindicating the tightness in her stomach.
"It's too risky," Lori said, shaking her head.
"You should send more people," Andrea added.
Daryl scoffed at that suggestion. "Y'think having y'all trailing behind us like a friggin' parade's gonna make us any safer?"
"We'll get in and out quicker by ourselves," Glenn threw his support with Daryl and Beth had to grudgingly admit they were the best choices. Daryl knew the woods and Glenn was swift and quick thinking. They made a good team. Beth still felt her dinner in her stomach like rocks. Those men had been horrifying the first time round and now she knew the worst. If they got a hold of Daryl, she didn't know what she'd do. Probably tear that damn camp and those men apart with her bare hands. Beth wasn't a violent person but if someone hurt the people she loved than she would gladly seek their blood.
Daryl seemed to find his shoe very interesting for all the attention he was paying her and Beth glared at him. As if he could sense it, he glanced up and briefly locked eyes with her. In that second Beth could see he was determined to do this regardless of the danger. And it wasn't because he was being reckless but because he was being the opposite. They needed to know what they were going up against and Daryl was the most likely to survive such a task. It made her sick with worry but her heart also swelled with love. He was doing this to protect her, their family and their home.