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Stumbling Towards Love

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“Potato soup,” Carol said wistfully. “Hot potato soup with crisp, crumbled bacon and fresh snipped chives on top.”

“And sour cream. Had to have a glob of sour cream right in the middle,” Lori added. “If you’re going to be decadent, you have to go all the way.”

“French fries then,” Maggie added her opinion. “What’s more decadent than good, clean potatoes drowned in grease? With ketchup.” Maggie closed her eyes and licked her lips as she imagined the flavor and texture. Beth almost laughed remembering how Maggie always pretended to hate greasy French fries then she would secretly chow down on them whenever she got the chance and thought no one was looking.

“Well, if we’re going grease, I’d vote on potato latkes,” Beth said softly. Even though they had been on the road together for almost two months, Beth still felt like a kid in the company of the older women. All of them, particularly Carol and Lori, automatically took on the role of mother/advisor when they talked to her, instead of treating her as an equal. She didn’t think it was an attitude they consciously adopted, it was just something that happened. Like now they had this questioning look on their faces, like her comment had been somehow childish. “Grated potatoes, fried in grease, topped with sour cream,” Beth elaborated. “All the decadent goodies in one package.”

Lori raised an eyebrow then nodded. “Good one.”

“Well, I’d have to go potato salad. American with globs of mayonnaise or hot German with bacon and a vinegar dressing.” Hershel said setting another sack of potatoes on the ground. He had caught the end of their conversation.

“Aw, hell, just eat ‘em raw.” Daryl, who had listened wordlessly to their silly chatter, reached over Beth, picked a washed potato from the basket next to her and bit into it like he was eating an apple. He crunched the raw vegetable loudly. “No sense dreamin’ ‘bout somethin’ you ain’t never gonna have,” he added, talking around a mouthful of raw potato

“Party pooper,” Hershel responded, but his attempt at sternness was woefully underappreciated as Daryl snorted and turned his back on the group by the creek, resuming his duty scanning the tree line for walkers.

They had been lucky to find this field. Some farmer months ago had planted here, planning a fall harvest. Daddy had recognized the half dead tops of the plants for what they were and they had spent half the day digging potatoes and loading them into the back ends of two pick-up trucks. The potatoes would keep indefinitely if the weather stayed cool and they could keep them dry. They would be sick of potatoes before they were all eaten, but at least there would be something in their stomachs beside wild game and edible plants, the supply of the first being unpredictable and the second growing more scarce as the weather cooled and winter approached.

***

It’s funny how you can remember trivial things in intimate detail, Beth thought. Like a silly conversation about potatoes when the world had turned itself inside out and every day held a new threat. But maybe potatoes aren’t such a trivial matter when you haven’t eaten in two days and you’ve just stumbled on an acre of potatoes ready to be harvested. She remembered everything about that afternoon. The crisp, clear blue sky. The cool air despite the constant sun. Daddy’s laugh. Lori’s smile. And the chill that shivered through her when the warm skin on the inside of Daryl’s arm brushed against her bare shoulder as he reached into that basket to snatch up a raw potato.

Beth had frozen in place, afraid she had gasped out loud in surprise, and had glanced up at him. He had made eye contact with her for the briefest second before quickly standing and walking away crunching that stupid potato. Beth had hoped none of the others had noticed, and breathed a sigh of relief as they all laughed over Daddy’s silly joke. She had not wanted to be accused of having a foolish teenage crush on someone who would never be interested in her, because she did not have a crush. Yet her reaction had been so visceral it had been frightening

Daryl was coarse and unpredictable and she would never have given him a second glance had the world not turned itself upside down. But in the weeks after the farm was overrun, she had begun to sense what he kept buried. He had a big heart even if he did not share it. She had seen that in his reaction when that little girl walker came out of Daddy’s barn. He had been as devastated as Carol. Daryl had shown infinite patience as he taught Beth to do things he learned as a boy half her age, like starting a fire with no matches and skinning a rabbit or squirrel without leaving half the meat on the hide, setting a snare, eating a raw potato or - killing walkers quickly and efficiently. So, in time, the logical part of her brain had convinced her that her reaction had been due to the stress of constant danger and of living in close proximity to a limited group people.

That day, sitting in the middle of a field of potatoes, goose bumps prickling her flesh, she would have never imagined herself curled around him, her body pressed to his, grateful beyond measure for his warmth, his courage, even his awkward, fumbling first attempts at learning how to love - not making love, learning to love - stumbling, falling and picking themselves up along the way. Beth knew deep within every fiber of her being that Daryl Dixon was the other half of her soul, her beating heart, her second skin, her beloved. She was certain he returned her love, but he did not fully understand the overwhelming and confusing emotions because this world and his past spared little room for such indulgence. Snuggling closer to him as he slept, she curved her body to form itself against his, a mirror of the backwards hug that had meant so much to them both, wrapped her arms around his waist, and rested her head against his broad shoulders. Gently she kissed the wingtip of the demon tattoo peeking from the torn sleeve of his shirt. He shifted slightly in his sleep. She kissed him again and he stirred.

“Whatcha doin’ girl?” he mumbled, not quite awake.

“Nothin’,” she said. “Go back to sleep.” And Beth kissed him one more time. She would be patient, as he had been patient with her. They would learn together, how to love. She would exorcise his demons one kiss at a time, peel back the layers he had forged to protect his heart, and when he was ready she would be waiting.