Not so long ago, it had been the home of the head park ranger. Usually, in keeping with unspoken tradition, it would have been a simple log cabin, but this had been a living history farm and village - a mountain homestead. In order to be more accurate, they refurbished an old farmhouse that had been sitting neglected in the North Georgia mountains. It was simple enough, white clapboard with a dark green tin roof, one that blended into the magnolia trees that grew at each corner of the house. Masses of foundation plantings framed the front steps and hid the porch, offering deep shade to that place. The farmhouse itself was snugged up against the steep slope of a mountain on one side, the back door opening up onto a tiny backyard enclosed by a split rail fence made of cedar. A crushed stone path led to a heavy wooden door framed by river rock and set into the mountainside. The rest of the yard was a good size, with an orderly vegetable garden nestled into space at the left of the house, and several wood and stone outbuildings scattered around, one of them straddling a small stream that rushed down the slope from a waterfall to a larger run of fast moving water. The large, tumultuous creek, bounded the property on two sides, before flowing into the woods and then curving sharply towards what looked like a large pond glittering in the distance. Thick cove forest offered protection on all sides, and the creek's descent from the tall, rocky waterfall ensured that the only intelligent approach to the place was the path to the front door. The rest of the yard was surrounded by a living fence thick with vibrant firethorn, and the sleekly green leaves of mountain laurel and rhododendron. There was a small covered footbridge that spanned the fast rushing water. It was a sturdy arbor with an enclosed gate, thick with woody muscadine and scuppernong vines stretching from one side to the other. The gate itself was wrought iron, ornate and sleekly lethal.
Rick Grimes turned and glared at the young man who was acting as his guide around the hidden mountain cove the group had stumbled across on their way home from the horror that had been their lives in Virginia. He was tired of feeling like he was being stonewalled. First, the council couldn't see him until that evening, then Doc Mayor, whoever that was, was not available. Now he was walking up a wide, well-worn trail to see someone he didn't know anything about, with a kid who didn't speak unless he had to. All of this and the fact he had no clue as to where they even were was wearing on Rick's temper. All he wanted were some answers. At the very least - where the hell was this place? He wasn't sure exactly where they were in relation to former states, but Rick hoped that they had maybe crossed into Georgia at some point on their trek back towards home, or that they were at least in southern North Carolina or Tennessee. Virginia had been good until it wasn't, and then it had been nothing but blood, and tears, and death. They had lost so many since the original group had met up and formed at the quarry above Atlanta and then consolidated at the Greene farm. Of the original group, there were only three survivors, four if you included those left from the farm. The rest came along between the prison and Alexandria.
The former deputy followed the younger man, not really seeing the colorful fall scenery, just thinking far too much. The walk from the settlement to the farm house was quiet, too quiet, but it had given Rick the time to mull over all the losses they had taken. Losses that were etched on the back of his eyelids every time he shut his eyes, losses etched on his very soul, losses that he was hoping to put behind him.
Shaking off his reverie, Rick had just put his hand out to touch the gate they had stopped in front of when Noah, the young man, had grabbed his wrist. "Wouldn't do that if I was you. Might get shot, especially if Miss B's home. He's real protective of his wife."
Rick arched an eyebrow at the kid, and chuckled grimly, "why would I be shot? I thought you were bringing me to your leader." He wiggled his fingers at Noah, temper fraying even further.
The angrily sarcastic quip was lost on the younger man who just shrugged. "Mr. Dixon doesn't like to be called the leader, that's why we have Doc Mayor and the rest of the council. Doc just told me to bring you here to introduce you without all the fuss. And so you can try to make your case to them. The Dixon's are sort of the last word around these parts. And if Mrs. Dixon ain't happy, he ain't happy." Noah turned from Rick, and yelled over the fence line, "Miss B? Mr. Dixon? It's me, Noah. I got somebody you need to meet. Doc sent us up here. New group's come in this afternoon."
After standing for several minutes, getting more irritated by the moment, Rick squinted towards the house when he heard the front door open, then click shut. The figure standing on the deep porch was cast in shadow, so he couldn't make out anything more than a shape, but he was well aware that it was male. He had startled a bit when Noah had called out the name Dixon, just one more name to add to the list of ones he had lost. Of all of them, though, Daryl Dixon was the one that stung him the worst, even though he would never admit it to anyone. He had started to rely on the hunter over Shane more and more, they all had, really, and Rick knew that things may have turned out much differently if he had still been with them after the farm.
When they had first come across the group of traders the week before, Rick had given in with no quarrel when sanctuary had been offered to the group. It had been so very bad, that most of them were beyond caring what happened next, they just needed a real meal and safe place to sleep. Rick, himself, had been in a daze since Michonne and Carl had pushed to head to the mountains. The areas to the east, north, and south of Alexandria had been crawling not only with walkers but the living willing to make new ones. The mountains seemed to be their only recourse, and Rick just couldn't escape the irony that weighed him down along with every other seemingly bad decision he had made.
He was pulled from his thoughts when the man stepped down off the porch and made his way to the footbridge. As he drew closer, recognition flared, and Rick sucked in a breath of disbelief tinged with no little remorse. "Daryl? Daryl Dixon? How is this..." He trailed off as Daryl crossed the bridge.
"Well, well, Officer Rick Grimes. Been a long time. What brings ya to Walela Cove?" Daryl didn't give Rick a chance to answer before he nodded to Noah, who turned to head back to town. "Tell ya dad we found that stuff he wanted. It'll be over at the store in the mornin'."
Noah waved his hand and said, "thanks, Mr. Dixon, tell Miss B I said hello."
"Will do," came the reply as Daryl opened the wrought iron gate, and motioned Rick into the yard. "Best get on up to the house, Li'l B is gettin' an early supper since we got a council meetin' tonight. I reckon ya gonna be the hot topic this evenin'. We'll head on down after we eat."
Rick nodded dumbly as the gate was closed and latched, and then he followed Daryl through the large front yard, and up the steps to the porch. He still hadn't spoken, in shock over hearing a voice he could barely remember in his mind, one he thought he would never hear again. Opening the front door, Daryl ushered him inside to a large open hallway. Light from the narrow sidelights and transom window surrounding the door flooded the room. A quick look around the foyer showed Rick that there were two doors to the right, and one to the left. A beautifully carved wooden staircase hugged the wall on the left side of the hall, curving up to the second floor. In between the two doors on the right was a beautifully carved table decorated with an embroidered scarf and two old fashioned lamps. A small collection of what looked like angels filled the space between the lamps, surrounding a vase filled with yellow, red, and orange flowers. The walls themselves were white, hung with several landscape paintings.
"Dinin' room's the door to the right, go on in." Daryl drawled, watching Rick look around in something akin to wonder. He didn't say anything else, just nodded and turned away. Before Rick could respond, Daryl walked to the second door and disappeared inside.
A somewhat bemused Rick silently followed Daryl's demand and stepped into a beautifully decorated room. In the center of the room, there was a long, highly polished dining table with matching chairs. A heavy sideboard stood on the wall opposite the door, flanked by two tall windows. Delicate white lace curtains fell the length of the windows, adding a touch of brightness to the room. The wall facing the porch had a single offset window draped in lace, and a small buffet covered in a lace runner that matched the curtains and set with glassware and a couple of heavy candlesticks. There was a door leading into the back of the house that Rick assumed was the kitchen because he heard rattling dishes and the murmur of low voices. He turned his attention back to the dining room, marveling that there was even a place like this after all he had seen the past five or so years, even after the somewhat modern amenities of Alexandria. It was like stepping back into a history book - the kind that he had fallen asleep over on numerous occasions. Everything was neat and orderly, and the air smelled faintly of lemons and candle wax. He was still inspecting the room when the far door opened, and a small blonde stepped through. Another blast from the past collided with his solar plexus and Rick couldn't catch his breath.
"Mr. Grimes! Daryl said you were here. I am so glad to see you!" She put her burden down on the table, and hurried over to Rick, wrapping him in a tight hug. "We never thought we'd ever see any of you again! I can't believe that y'all found us..."
The dazed man interrupted before she could continue. "Beth Greene? What... I don't understand." Rick faltered as he held Beth at arm's length. "We thought you were dead. Maggie said..."
Beth's smile fell a bit, but she didn't move away. "Is Maggie with you? Are she and Glenn and the others ok?"
Rick looked up at Daryl who was standing behind Beth, watching him with the same fierceness he remembered from before. Before he could speak, Daryl shook his head tersely and took Beth's arm.
"Li'l B, you gonna feed ya man, or what? 'M starvin' after all that work I did today." Daryl's voice was quiet, even gentle, but Rick heard the possession loud and clear. He knew there would be a story to tell when he returned to the others.
Beth laughed, and drew his attention again, "Mr. Dixon, you are far from starvin', but let's get you both fed. That meetin' is comin' up shortly, and Lord knows you need your strength to get through it!"
Rick was watching the two interact in something akin to shock. The easy banter was something he would never have attributed to Daryl, or really Beth, as they had both been so painfully shy the last time he had seen them. In a short time, Rick found himself seated at the dining table while Beth set out food, and Daryl lit the two oil lamps that were sitting on the sideboard. Food placed, and lamps lit, Daryl took Beth's hand, and she offered hers to Rick. Again, the man was flabbergasted by his former companion. The rough and tumble hunter was saying grace without being prompted.
Blessing done, Daryl smirked at Rick, "Oughta grab some chicken 'fore it gets cold."
"Fried chicken?" Rick practically drooled.
They both watched as Rick filled his plate with the meal Beth had fixed. He was trying so hard not to fall onto the food in a frenzy of food lust. He couldn't remember the last time he had mashed potatoes and gravy or bread and real butter. And salt? Pepper? There were actually salt and pepper shakers on the table! The fried chicken was perfect, and there were green beans and creamed corn to go with it. The Dixons quickly joined Rick and served themselves. No one spoke while they ate, Beth with her dainty ways, Daryl somewhat more domesticated, and Rick like he hadn't eaten in months. Supper was washed down with ice cold tea that was shocking in its temperature and sweetness, even though there was no ice in the glass, and Rick wanted to know how that was possible - cold and sweet was a distant memory. When he cleared his plate, Rick sat back and opened his mouth to talk. Before he could, Beth stopped him with a raised hand.
"I got to get dessert out of the oven, should be ready. We can talk while we have it."
She rose from her seat and set a cut glass pitcher of tea from the sideboard on the table. "Help yourselves, I'll be right back."
She pressed a kiss to Daryl's temple and disappeared through the kitchen door.
Rick side-eyed Daryl. "I got a feelin' that there is a long, long story here. You gonna spill?"
Daryl snorted. "Pfft, not much of a story to tell, we got off the farm together, shit happened, now she's my wife..."
Beth returned soon with a piping hot apple pie. "Well, if that isn't the most romantic telling of our love story that I have ever heard, Daryl Dixon." She turned and spoke to the suddenly quiet Rick. "It isn't ice cream, but I do have fresh whipped cream if you like. Would you like a piece of pie?"
Daryl face and ears tinged with pink huffed a quiet laugh at Beth, and shook his head, wisely choosing to remain quiet. Rick nodded eagerly, and Beth dished out a rather large slice of the pie onto a plate. She dolloped on the whipped cream when he didn't disagree with that, either. Quickly dishing out portions for herself and Daryl, Beth settled in for the conversation her husband had been holding at bay since before they had sat down to supper. She, herself, had so many questions, but she had learned patience at the feet of the master and was now content to sit back and let things play out. Daryl finished his dessert and pushed his plate to the side. He drank down the last of his tea and focused on Beth who had moved to start gathering the dishes.
"Don't be touching them dishes, s'my turn to wash up, ya hear?"
Beth settled back into her seat, "I don't mind, Daryl, I know y'all got lots to talk about before we head to town."
Daryl shook his head, "Nah, girl, I'll get to it 'fore we get talkin', won't take me long."
"I'll be right back," was directed at Rick, who nodded.
"Let me at least bring the dishes into the kitchen." Beth took the stacked dishes, and Daryl followed her into the kitchen. She set them by the sink and turned back to her husband. "I'm scared to know what has happened these past years. I don't want anything to ruin what we have."
"Everything'll be a'ight, Lil' B," Daryl hugged her tight. "Go on back in with Rick, I'll be there soon as I put the dishes in to soak. I'll finish 'em up when we get home."
Beth nodded and went back in the dining room. Daryl filled the sink with hot water, added enough soap to lather, and washed up the glasses. He rinsed them and put them in the drainer to dry. He put the dishes and silverware in the sink, and while they soaked he put the leftovers in plastic containers. The serving dishes were added to the soapy water, and Daryl went back to his seat at the table.
"We got to be leavin' in the next few minutes, maybe you ought to let us know who we're gonna be shockin'."
Rick chuckled at Daryl's remark. "Shock isn't the word I would use, but... I guess the basics are this. Me, Carl, Lori, TDog, Maggie, and Glenn got off the farm and met up where we lost Sophia. Maggie told us that Beth was dead, and I saw Hershel go down. Carol and Andrea disappeared when they got surrounded by walkers. We wandered around a good while then found a prison. That was good until it wasn't. We gained Michonne and a few others there, including finding Andrea again, but we lost Lori and TDog. Lori had the baby, Judith's about four now." Rick paused, taking a shaky breath before continuing. "After we lost the prison to a nearby group, we were all separated, but managed to find each other, and a few more. Was talked into a mission to DC, but going to Virginia was a mistake. We weren't there long at all before it went to hell. Lost several people, including Glenn to a mad man on an ego trip. After all out war, and all the losses, it seemed like things would be better, but another shitstorm happened. And the ones we fought before took advantage of our weaknesses. I don't even know how long ago we left, we just walked away in the middle of the night, left some good people behind, but we just had to protect our family. At some point, we decided to head back to Georgia, to the mountains. Nowhere else to go, really. We don't even know if we made it back."
"You did, you made it back to Georgia." Beth started to cry as Rick was telling his story. "Maggie?"
"Maggie's here. Andrea, Carl, Judith, some others. She and Glenn had a baby, and he is almost a year old now."
Daryl stood up and pulled Beth into his arms. "S'ok, Li'l B, dry ya eyes, can't let Doc see ya been cryin', you know he'll take it outta my hide."
Beth snorted at that. "No, he won't, but you're right, we best be goin'."
The two men followed Beth out onto the porch and waited while she locked the door. Then the trio made their way to the footbridge and the path to the town. Tonight was just starting to get interesting.