You don't get too many second chances in a world where the dead roam the earth. But Daryl was given a second chance with Beth and he was majorly fucking it up. He wasn't meaning to, he just couldn't let her slip through his fingers again.
"Where the hell did ya' get those?" Daryl grumbled at Beth. He stood on the porch stoop, leaning on the railing. Facial scruff in desperate need of a trim, mouth downturned into his perpetual scowl. Shaggy hair hanging in his eyes. How he could even see was anyone's guess.
"Ooo, Uncle Daryl said hell," Judith chided behind a giggle. Surely by now, at age seven, she'd be used to Daryl swearing. Apparently she still thought it was funny. Or she found it funny to tattle on him.
"You're right Judith. Would you watch your mouth, Uncle Daryl?" Beth eyed him, a mischievous glint sparked. She wasn't asking him. She was telling him.
He fought the grin that tugged at his lips. Just who did she think she was? Oh yes, she was Beth Greene. The only adult that had him wrapped around her pinky. She could talk to him any damn way she wanted.
Beth was special to him. He'd kill and die for her. As dramatic as it sounded, it was true. This was the end of the world, the stakes were a bit higher.
They were relatively safe within the walls of Alexandria. Still, you couldn't be too careful and he kept an eye on her when he was able. He tried to be covert in his dedication because she'd be more pissed than a wet cat if she knew just how much he watched out for her. Then again she was smart. How could she not know? Maybe she did and just let it slide by. He doubted that though.
He kept his feelings about her mostly under wraps. Well, not mostly so much as completely. He couldn't see any good coming from telling her how he felt. There was no way she'd be interested in him in that way. They had a connection, no doubt there. Their time at the prison was... distant, only interacting when need be. Then when the prison fell they got out together and in a short amount of time, everything changed. He'd been on the verge of telling her how he felt, but the words wouldn't come. She was perceptive and he thought she was catching onto what he wanted to say. What changed your mind, she had asked. He should have said You did. You did, Beth. You changed everything. He lost his chance when he opened the door to all those walkers. And then he lost her.
It's funny how you don't realize what a person means to you until they're gone.
If by funny you mean devastating then, yes it was funny.
"Fine. Where'd did you find those?" Daryl said, omitting the word hell.
"In the pumpkin patch. Duh," Beth answered without meeting his eye.
"Yeah, duh Uncle Daryl," little Hershel said and laughed.
Beth held three year old RJ on her hip, though he was getting too big to be toted around. Seven year old Judith was unloading the pumpkins from a wheelbarrow used to haul them with. Five year old Hershel, visiting from Hilltop with his mother, stood nearby, excited about the orange gourds Beth had just picked.
Duh, indeed. He knew they came from the pumpkin patch. The problem was who went out there to fetch them. "You didn't go out there and get them did you?"
The majority of their crops were inside Alexandria's walls. The bigger crops were on the outside. It was a risk they were willing to take. As their population grew they needed more food. More food meant bigger crops. Only a few select people were allowed to tend them and Beth wasn't one of them. The pumpkin patch was only a few feet away from their main gate, but still.
He'd thought it was a dumb idea. Planting a small pumpkin patch from seeds of wild pumpkins someone found on the outside. They'd bake the pumpkins, eat their pulp, eat their seeds, save some for replanting next year. It sounded less than tasty to Daryl. Now seeing how excited the kids were and how happy Beth was he didn't think it was as dumb as he initially thought.
"Na', they levitated in on their own," she sassed.
On a softer note, she said, "One of the best memories from my childhood was picking out a pumpkin every Halloween. But don't you worry your pretty little face, I didn't take the kids out with me." Oh, how she loved to razz him. "Well, except for Judith. I needed her help." Beth sent Judith a wink. She had become her little companion again. Just like when she was a baby.
Keeping Judith contained was proving to be as difficult as it was keeping Carl where he was supposed to be when he was young. Luckily she was as smart as a whip and as competent with a weapon as most adults.
"Beth," Daryl began, striding down the top two of the three porch steps. She was standing on the ground, he on the bottom step. There he towered over her. The way her head tilted up towards him, he was tempted to cup her chin between his fingers just to feel the warmth of her soft skin.
Rolling her eyes, she said, "Don't start with me. It's fine. We're fine." She gestured to the kids, putting RJ down on the ground, placing a hand on her cocked hip. "You're worse than an overprotective parent, ya' know that?"
"It ain't like that," he tried to defend himself.
Except it was like that. He wanted, had this need to keep her safe. Right or wrong, if it pissed her off, oh the fuck well. But now she was looking at him like that.
Her brow creased, her pretty mouth drawn into a frown. He was worried that in trying to protect her, he was creating an enemy of the one person he didn't want as an enemy.
"You can't keep me behind these walls twenty-four-seven," Beth said an edge to her voice. "I'm perfectly capable of handling myself."
He sighed audibly. Not wanting to dig himself into a deeper hole than he already was, he let it go for now. He stomped down the last remaining step and when he reached out to touch her elbow, she pulled away.
Touching her was something he'd become accustomed to doing. Just a brush of his fingers on her skin, it reaffirmed that she was here and alive. Part of him was afraid he'd wake up one day to find her gone, still dead in the trunk of the car where he'd left her lifeless body at Grady. Those little touches grounded him, reminded him that she was real.
She'd pitch a fit if he smoked around the kids, so when he was further away he retrieved a cigarette from his front pocket, lit it and took a long hard drag. He hoped it would clear his head. He had to find a way to let her go, find a way to let her do her own thing without watching over her like the overprotective parent she described him as. That was the last thing he wanted her to think of him as.
As he walked the path through the center of Alexandria, he recalled back to when they first came here. He practically crawled out of his skin, he felt so claustrophobic. He sucked it up for the kids. Judith deserved a safe place. Carl too. For them, he'd do anything. He remained on the peripheral of town and its people until Beth came back. Things kind of fell into place after that. She brought life back to him.
Wherever the future held, where Beth was, that'd be his home.
When Beth came back to them, somehow she was the same but different. Long silky hair pulled back at the nape of her neck. Quick to smile. A heart as big as the sun. She was tougher and more independent. During her time away, when they all thought her for dead, she had matured. Daryl had been unbelievably stunned when he set eyes on her again. Only now he was afraid he was pushing her away.
He watched her from a distance helping the kids carve their pumpkins, scooping the pulp out into a bowl. They didn't know what time or exactly what month it was but the weather was changing. The days were getting shorter, the morning air had a slight edge. Beth said she was going to pick a few pumpkins for the kids to carve, trying to give them some semblance of the way life used to be, a life they will never fully know. It was a sweet idea and everyone agreed to it, deciding to have a fall harvest to go along with it. Kind of like Halloween and Thanksgiving rolled up into one. They'd have a community dinner and the kids would even dress up in makeshift costumes.
He already knew he'd skip out on most of it.
So much was different in this dead world, but some things haven't changed. Looking on at the scene one almost couldn't differentiate between then and now. A woman surrounded by kids carving pumpkins. The kids thoroughly enjoying themselves. Squealing with delight at how the guts felt between their fingers. Hershel refused to even touch the stuff, his arms crossed stubbornly over his chest. RJ was up to his elbows in it. Judy wielded a knife like a pro carving her pumpkin into a scary Jack-o'-lantern. Beth laughing at their antics, warning them to be careful.
In spite of himself, his heart warmed at the scene. Beth was so kind, so caring. Even to him, even when he didn't deserve it. He felt bad for the way he acted and knew she deserved an apology. He hated apologizing now as much as he did before the turn. Some things never change.
Later that night, after their fall festivities were over, he walked the path to the house Beth called home. It was really the only place that had room for her. She didn't need a full house all to herself, so she had a room at Aaron's.
The house was dark, everyone tucked away into their respective rooms for the night. He rounded the side of the house to her bedroom window. He'd done this many times before. He'd tap lightly and return to the front porch where she'd join him. They'd sit out in the dark and do something he'd never been interested in before; talk.
They'd talk about nothing special. About the day or something one of the kids did or said that was funny. About an upcoming run he'd have to make. About the townspeople. Sometimes they'd talk about Grady. Mostly he'd just listen when she talked, never knowing quite what to say.
He knocked on the glass with a knuckle, the curtain hiding his view inside. All he could tell was it was dark in the room beyond the window. His anxiety, a constant hum, began to grow. She could be sleeping, tuckered out from the evening. She could be ignoring him, angry at the way he acted. That wasn't really like her though. She'd get mad but got over it pretty quickly. She didn't hold grudges. Not after what she'd been through.
"Beth", he whispered loudly, knocking again, not really caring if anyone heard.
No response. He rounded the house again, stood in front of it. All the windows were dark, no movement within. The only light came from the pumpkins standing watch on the porches' top step flickering with candlelight. It dawned on him then where she might be.
Daryl took off at a trot to the main gate demanding to be let out. The guard on duty didn't argue and quickly let him through. He went straight for the pumpkin patch.
A single figure stood centered in the field, silhouetted by the bright harvest moon. Could be a walker, or it could be Beth. He'd bet on it being Beth. Not too many walkers stood stock still, staring up at the moon with a blanket wrapped around their shoulders.
He wanted to grab her by the shoulders, shake her. Ask her what the hell did she think she was doing outside the gates standing in a fucking pumpkin patch in the middle of the night.
But he didn't. Instead, he did what he does. He watched. He thought they were so different when in actuality they really weren't. If he'd taken his head out of his ass long enough he would have seen it sooner.
She was like a captive bird, battering her wings against an invisible cage, desperate to escape her own mind. Just as he had been when he first came here. She hid it well, now under the full moon, it was clear to him.
Walking up on her, making little to no noise, he reached up, his hand inches from her shoulder when she quickly swiveled to face him, knife in her hand, poised to stab.
"Whoa, whoa," he whispered, palms up in defense.
Recognition shone in her eyes and she sheathed the knife, pulled the blanket back up over her shoulders.
"Jesus, Daryl. Want to get yourself killed?"
"Not really," he answered truthfully. After he left what he thought was her dead body at Grady, he didn't care if he lived or died. Her return had put the breath back in his lungs. He wasn't scared of death but now he wanted to avoid it if at all possible.
She squinted up at him, still a little angry from their earlier altercation. "You spying on me or somethin'?"
"No. I went to the house to talk to you. You weren't there."
"Uh huh," she said/whispered. Whispering didn't really help in a night as still as this one. The slightest sound reverberated through the stillness.
"Actually I went to the house to say I was sorry," he admitted.
"Sorry?" She said doubtfully. "For what?"
Damn. She was going to make him say it. "Come on, why don't we go back? You ain't safe out here."
That was the wrong thing to say. She backed up a step. "How come it's not safe for me but it's safe for you?"
"I didn't mean it like that. It's not safe for anyone."
"Ya' know, Grady was no picnic. Even after Dawn was killed. I took care of myself then, just like I can now. I can make my own decisions. I can leave the gates if I want to." Her voice was even, matter of fact. Telling him what was what.
The mere mention of Grady was like a punch to the gut. "I know. I just can't let anything happen to you again."
"Why? We've lost a lot of people. What makes me so different from anyone else?"
What made her different from everyone else? She was Beth. That was the difference.
"I failed ya' once. I can't let it happen again."
Her breath puffed out in a white cloud on the chilly air. His admission brought tears instantly to her eyes. "Daryl, you didn't fail me."
"Yes, I did." And no one could tell him otherwise. He looked down at his feet, at the dusty old warm boots he wore, then back up to Beth. "Do you remember that day at the shack?"
She nodded. Her memory was sketchy since being shot, but she didn't forget their time together before Grady.
"You said I was afraid."
"That was a long time ago, we were both angry."
"You were right. I was afraid. I am afraid. Anytime I think of you in danger, I get sick with fear. When I found out you was alive, I swore I'd never let anyone hurt you again. If that's wrong," he shrugged his shoulders, "Then, that's just the way it's gotta' be, 'cause I can't lose you again."
By then tears flowed freely down her face, reflecting the moon's pale light. "I'm so sorry," Beth whispered, shaking with emotion and with the cold. "Sorry for..." She wasn't even exactly sure what she was sorry for. She just knew she should be. He was only looking after her, she was too bullheaded to see it that way.
"Don't apologize." That was honestly the last thing he wanted. "I just wanted you to know," he said lamely. Know what exactly? Embarrassed now. That was more than he'd said to anyone in his entire life.
Having said his peace, he took a step away leaving her alone like he thought she wanted to be. Before he could retreat too far she pulled him back by the elbow. Slipping an arm around his shoulder, the other hand cupping his cheek. The blanket fell forgotten to the ground.
"You have got to forgive yourself, you didn't fail me. Whatever happened before is in the past. I'm here now. You're here. We got a second chance."
"A second chance? Don't get too many of those," he said, voice hoarse with uncertainty.
"We have to keep moving forward. Together."
"Together?" He questioned.
Daryl leaned his brow to hers. "Damn it, Beth, there ain't words for what I feel for you."
Shocking him, she lightly placed her lips against his. His arms, acting on their own accord, wrapped around her waist pulling her close.
When they finally parted, her eyes stayed closed a second longer as though cherishing the moment. Then she opened them, tears having dried up, she whispered: "I love you too, Daryl."