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cross my heart, pretty darlin’, over you

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It had taken a good long while, but by now Daryl’s used to walkin’ through Rick’s front door without so much as knocking first. He wouldn’t say he feels like he belongs there or nothin’ like that — ain’t never felt like he belongs much of anywhere, and he’s too old to change — but eventually he’d got sick of Rick moanin’ because he was too busy changing Judith or gettin’ on Carl about his chores or some other suburban dad shit to answer the door. Easier just to walk on in.

He’s met with the smell of knock-off lemon Pledge and the sounds of some baking show on TV in the den halfway down the hall. Daryl frowns. Rick’s cruiser’s in the drive but lemon and baking means he’s not the adult on duty today, and if Daryl had known that he would have waited to drop by. He’s of a mind to leave the way he came, but Beth’s already poked her head out the open archway to the kitchen and now he’s fuckin’ stuck here.

“Howdy, Mr. Dixon,” she chirps, all sunshine and toothy smile and, yeah, now Daryl’s not about to go anywhere and he’s kinda pissed about it.

He grunts a greeting in response, then ducks into the den so she doesn’t make him talk any more than that.

Carl’s the one who’s got the baking show on. Always does, when Beth’s around. Rick reckons his kid’s got a little crush on the babysitter or somethin’. Not that Daryl’s ever been any good with girls, but honestly he doesn’t think Carl’s plan is the worst he’s heard. Better than anything Merle’s ever done, and he’s got women on him like flies on honey, and there ain’t nothin’ sweet about Merle.

“‘Lo, Daryl,” Carl says from his slouch on the sofa.

“How’s it goin’, kid?” Daryl sniffs, swipes a hand over his mouth. “Your dad not around?”

“Workin’. Went in with Michonne today.”

That explains the cruiser in the drive, then. Daryl can’t really kick his ass for that — couldn’t regardless, anyway, because that would mean admitting he doesn’t want to be alone with the fucking babysitter and isn’t that just a whole can of worms he doesn’t want to think about, let alone open. He could say it’s because Beth’s chatty and he never knows what the hell to say back to her, because nobody would question his discomfort there, but he anxiously assumes that Rick’ll know better ‘cause Rick knows him better. Can read him like a damn book.

His fingers twitch for a cigarette, but he ain’t about to light up in the house. He’s just gonna have to wait it out.

Judith’s in her playpen, rubbing a stuffed purple hippo against her cheek, eyelids heavy as she nods off. Probably about time for her afternoon nap. Daryl shuffles a hand through her hair. “What’re ya doin’, huh, sweetheart?”

She lifts the toy and gurgles something about “Mistah Bear” before returning it to her cheek.

“‘S a fuckin’ hippo, but alrigh’.”

“Language, Mr. Dixon,” Beth tuts as she sweeps into the den with a spray bottle and rag that’s not looking particularly clean anymore. Rick don’t get around to cleaning much, but even still…

“Ya know Rick don’t like it when ya pick up after ‘im like some sorta maid,” he reminds Beth with the air of a man who doesn’t really give a shit what she does. Which is mostly true but also mostly not, somehow.

She lifts a delicate brow — everything about her’s so damn delicate — but doesn’t stop what she’s doing. For as much as he pretends he doesn’t care what she’s doing, it really doesn’t matter to her what he’s got to say about it.

“Good thing he won’t notice,” she retorts airily, sort of polite like her daddy taught her and sort of friendly like she just naturally is, “now that you’ve tracked all that dirt in ‘cause you couldn’t be bothered to leave your damn shoes at the door.”

“Talkin’ ‘bout my language,” Daryl mutters as he kicks off his work boots. Not that it makes much difference now, his soles pick up all sorts of shit when he’s workin’ at the garage, but he don’t need Beth looking at him any more so he figures he best do as she says.

Beth sticks her tongue out at him. He considers flipping her off, but the last time he did something like that ‘round the kids, Rick didn’t let him live it down for a month, at least. Sometimes Judith still screeches “motherfucker!”, albeit a lot more gleefully than Daryl ever did.

So he lets it go and only spares her half a glance before she whisks back into the kitchen, and he flops onto the couch next to Carl to pretend that he gives a shit about whatever the hell fondant’s supposed to be.

He never does figure it out — doesn’t pay enough attention to — before the key rattles in the front door and Rick’s footsteps echo, muffled, down the carpeted hallway. He doesn’t shout out a hello, just a “Why’s it smell like lemon?” when he reaches the den.

Daryl jerks his chin in the direction of the kitchen. “Girl’s cleanin’.”

Rick rolls his eyes, good-naturedly but still tired, as he collapses into the armchair. “Beth —”

“Sorry!” she shouts over the sound of running water. “Can’t hear ya, out in a sec!”

“Think she can hear you just fine,” Carl says.

“Yeah?” Rick chucks a throw pillow at his son. “Maybe you shoulda been the one cleaning up after yourself, huh? Go do your homework.”

The tips of his ears burning red, Carl relents with nothing but a mumbled and only slightly resentful “Yes, sir,” before he pushes himself up from the couch and trudges upstairs to his bedroom. He shouts a goodbye to Beth, who shouts one back. The water’s turned off to be replaced with the sounds of opening cabinets and the clink of dishes, Judith’s steady breathing as she naps, Mister Bear tucked beneath her chin, and Rick switches the TV to a football game that’s just barely more interesting than the baking show. Daryl’s more preoccupied with the empty doorway, anyhow. His fingers twitch again.

“Somethin’ wrong with your car?” he asks Rick, more to distract himself than anything.

“Huh? No, nothing. Spent all day doin’ paperwork, didn’t see the sense in driving in since Michonne offered me a ride.”

“Uh-huh.” Daryl snorts.

“Fuck off, man,” Rick says, just as good-naturedly and a lot less tired now.

Daryl doesn’t say another word about it. It’s been a couple of years since Lori passed; if Rick’s met someone, well, good for him. It’s not really Daryl’s business, so long as the woman’s good to the kids, and Michonne always has been. His little “Uh-huh” is as much as he’s gonna bring it up.

Beth swings back into the room a few minutes’ of silence later, backpack slung over her shoulder and the jangle of pretty bracelets on her left wrist makin’ their usual racket as she wriggles two beer bottles between her fingers.

“You even old ‘nough to be carryin’ that, girl?” Daryl wants to know, even though he knows, perfectly (painfully) well, how old she is.

“Just not as old as you, is all.” She winks, tosses one to Rick and the other to him, both of them catching the bottles with deft, almost synchronized reflexes.

Daryl huffs, mutters a “Smartass,” and makes her smile as he picks at the label.

It’s a fleeting one, that smile — at least, it’s not just for him anymore when she waves and heads for the door, chattering about how she’s gotta run, she’s meeting Maggie for dinner in an hour, and then she shouts “See y’all tomorrow!” over her shoulder as she goes. The front door clicks shut and the jangle of her pretty bracelets can no longer be heard over the noise of the TV, and the flush that had crept up the back of Daryl’s neck since he got here is finally, mercifully, subsiding.

He pops the tab on his beer and resolves not to think about it anymore.

He almost immediately fails.

“What a’you even need that babysitter for now, anyhow?” he asks, like he’s annoyed that Beth one-upped him before she left, as if she’s not always one-upping him, leaving him too dumb to think up anything else to say to her. “Ain’t Carl too old for all that?”

Rick gives him a funny look. “He’s thirteen.”

“Hmph.”

“Judith’s two.”

Can’t argue that. Daryl takes a pull of beer and says “Hmph” again.

“You got a problem with Beth?”

He shrugs, picks at the label some more, keeping his eyes trained on either that or the TV to avoid looking Rick in the eye. “Jus’ don’ see what y’ need her for no more.”

“You wanna watch my kids while I’m at work?”

“Shit, no. I got work too.”

“And Beth don’t,” Rick points out. “Nothing but the farm, anyway, and Hershel doesn’t keep his kids locked up there or nothing. You know she’s a good kid. Pretty much family at this point.” He shrugs, takes a sip of his own beer. “Why’d I get rid of her?”

“Dunno.” And he doesn’t know, truly, doesn’t even know why he brought it up. He just can’t stop fucking thinking about it — alright, about her, fuck, but how did this even happen? — and now he’s gone and said it. “Jus’ sayin’.”

“Sayin’ what?”

“Nothin’.” Daryl sighs, gruff and low and wishing he could’ve swallowed his words like he does with literally everything else. “Forget it.”

Rick’s always been able to see right through him, though. Can read me like a damn book, ‘member? Man’s able to see right through most anybody, which Daryl guesses is a good trick up your sleeve when you’re a cop and all, but it’s never done him much in the way of favors.

Especially now.

Especially when Rick groans and says, “Aw, Christ, Daryl,” like he knows every one of the man’s dirty little secrets that he never fucking asked for, but Daryl just couldn’t keep them to himself for fuck knows what reason, so here they are. And, considering that all those dirty little secrets happen to be dirty little thoughts about Beth Greene, well… Daryl s’poses Rick does know them all now, or as good as.

He doesn’t say anything to his friend’s curse, though. Doesn’t trust himself to. So he takes another swig of his beer to make sure that he doesn’t so much as bother to try. Which he really should’ve goddamn done in the first place, but too late for that now, innit?

“I know she’s pretty, man,” Rick says because he can’t just leave well enough alone, “but Christ.”

Daryl tries to clear his throat, but it’s all sandpaper. “Said that already.”

“S’cuse me.” Daryl won’t look at him, but he can hear another eye-roll in his voice. Asshole. “Just found out you got a crush on my babysitter, so I’m a little shook up here.”

“Shut the hell up,” he retorts with no real bite, because he’s just resigned to this now, he did it to himself and now all he can do is backtrack and deny it. “Don’t know what y’r talkin’ ‘bout.”

But Rick sure as hell isn’t about to be thrown off now. “How long’s this been going on?”

Daryl doesn’t answer that, either. Not sure he even has an answer to that. Shit crept up on him, took him by surprise. All he can say is that it hasn’t been that long — definitely not before she turned eighteen, he doesn’t think, but she’s only nineteen now and frankly it’s no better that he feels this way now than it woulda been if he felt like this when she was sixteen, probably. She’s still a kid, he’s always seen her as a kid, and his friend’s kid, at that.

He’d met Hershel Greene a few years back, when Daryl played chaperone to Merle at AA meetings (which, in the end, had gone out the damn window because Merle decided he didn’t want to quit drinking, after all, but he’d compromised and gone to NA instead. Truth of it is, Daryl doesn’t think that’s a compromise, exactly, but the narcotics were a more pressing issue, anyway, and at this point Daryl would take what he could get from his brother).

He kept in touch with Hershel, lent a hand at the farm whenever he could. The man was a good one. Daryl hadn’t known many good men in his life and he wasn’t about to risk his relationship with any of them — least of all over Hershel’s daughter, for chrissakes.

So does it matter, really, “how long”? It could go on forever and Daryl would never do anything about it, for a whole mess of reasons — she’s too young she’s Hershel’s kid what the hell do I know ‘bout bein’ with anybody anyway who says she’d even want that hell why do I even want that I dunno what the hell I want but it shouldn’t be her — he repeats to himself whenever the thought dares to cross his mind. It dares a whole awful lot, but he doesn’t know when it all started.

Maybe that’s something he needs to think about.

Not right now, fuckin’ obviously, not when Rick’s giving him the third degree and Daryl would rather flip out his lighter not for a cigarette this time but to just set himself on fire to avoid the rest of it.

He should not be this messed up over a goddamn kid.

But he’ll think about that later. Or maybe he won’t. He’d rather not. But since when does anybody care what he wants, least of all his own damn self?

When he continues on not answering his question, Rick snorts. Like he thinks it’s actually kinda funny or some bullshit like that. “I’d sooner arrest you than fire her, y’know.”

“Still don’t know what y’r yammerin’ on ‘bout.”

“Just gonna play dumb now, huh?”

“Ain’t playin’ nothin’.”

Rick smirks. Daryl catches the quirk out of the corner of his eye, and abandons the label to chew on his thumbnail instead. “She’s a little young for you, don’t you think?”

“Don’t matter,” Daryl grumbles. “I ain’t done nothin’.”

“You thinkin’ about it?”

He clears his throat. Doesn’t work any better this time than it did the last he tried. “Nah.”

That gets a full fuckin’ laugh out of Rick. He shakes his head, lifts his bottle to his lips, and turns back to the game. “Lying through your damn teeth, man.”

He knows Daryl’s not gonna try anything, knows that he’s not that type of guy. It’s why he can laugh about it like he is, the way that makes Daryl grit his teeth and set his jaw, makes the beer taste at once flat and too frothy down his throat, but it’s better than if Rick took this seriously. Because if that’s how it’d be, then Daryl would have a lot more thinking to do.

But he doesn’t, he can let those thoughts lay as dormant as he can make them. He’s not sure whether he’ll think on them when he’s alone later, but fuck if he can’t at least try to ignore it. Because far as Rick can tell, Daryl just thinks the girl’s pretty and that’s innocent enough. Not even just that, but it’s obvious fact, a foregone conclusion — Beth Greene is a pretty girl, and Daryl’s a decent enough man not to do anything about it.

At least. that’s what Daryl assumes Rick thinks. It’s what he’s been telling himself to shake off those errant thoughts that’ve been creeping into his head over the past few months or whenever it’d been since this all started, since it stirred, since Beth started getting older and he started wondering things — things she’ll never be old enough for him to think about her, but he can’t control it all the goddamn time, can he? Shit happens and sometimes he wonders.

And then Rick’s gotta go and open his mouth again, and Daryl’s got to think about all this shit whether he wants to or not. And he fucking does not.

“Might not be the worst thing in the world if you did, though,” Rick says, thoughtful like. He’s still looking at the TV and for a moment Daryl thinks he must’ve imagined what he said, but then — “Did somethin’ about Beth, I mean. Kinda weird, I guess, but… I dunno. I know you’re not some creep just looking to — y’know, get his rocks off with some young girl.” He tilts his head. “Just Beth, right?”

Daryl chews a little harder on his thumbnail. “Not tryna get my rocks off with nobody,” he mumbles, the flush on his neck creeping up again. He fuckin’ hates talking about this shit.

Rick nods. “Well, see, that’s what I mean. You’re not the worst sorta guy who’s ever had his eye on Beth.”

“Fuckin’... thanks?” What else is he supposed to say to that? “Don’t got my eye on her, neither. Jus’...” Why is he still talking? He curls his fingers into the thigh of his jeans and takes a long swallow of beer. “Dunno.”

Dunno. It’s fucking useless but still just about the most honest thing he’s said all damn day. Because he doesn’t know — not when or why or how or even what, really, this thing he’s feeling is. He probably could know if he gave it more attention than telling himself all the reasons why he can’t, but another thing he doesn’t know is if he even wants to know. How’d that help any, if he knew any of that?

Christ, he does not want to be thinking about this.

Daryl finishes off his beer and taps restless fingers against the half pack of cigarettes squashed into his front pocket, and stews in the too little, too late, self-awareness that he never should’ve opened his damn stupid mouth in the first place.