“Hey, you seen Beth around?”
Maggie frames it as a question, but the look on her face—a face that’s already gaunter than it was when Daryl first saw it, and it ain’t even full winter yet—suggests that he damn well better’ve seen Beth around, ideally within the last ten seconds. That look puts him on the defensive, compels him to square his shoulders like he’s bracing himself for a punch.
“I look like a babysitter to you?” he asks, even though he damn well knows it’s a shitty thing to say. It’s not that Beth needs a babysitter; it’s that everyone in this group aside from him and maybe Rick needs looking after. It’s that none of them were built for a world like this. “Saw her five minutes ago, didn’t you? Girl’s fine.”
He’s not just saying it to be dismissive; if something had happened to Beth, they wouldn’t be having this conversation, because he’d be too busy shooting something in the head to stop and chat. But he must do a poor job of conveying the subtext—not that he tried all that hard in the first place—because Maggie’s lips purse like she just sucked down a mouthful of unsweetened lemonade.
“Five minutes is all it takes,” she says.
Daryl’s fingers start twitching for something to fiddle with, something to peel open and pick apart. Maggie ain’t just talking about the geeks; he knows she’s not just talking about the geeks. ’Cause walkers ain’t exactly stealthy, unless they’re all mixed in with actual dead people so you can’t tell them apart from the corpses that don’t bite, and they would’ve heard Beth scream if one came stumbling on up to her, besides. But a person—a person could’ve gotten the drop on her. A person could’ve clamped a heavy hand over her mouth before she got the chance to scream.
Daryl swings his crossbow up and goes stalking in the direction he last saw Beth heading toward. “I’ll go check on her,” he says, but when he hears a second set of footsteps treading in his wake, he shoots a scowl over his shoulder. “Hell you doin’, girl?”
He would venture to describe the look Maggie gives him as scathing. “What’s it look like I’m doin’? I’m comin’ with you, that’s what.”
Daryl. Does not have time for this. He swivels around to face Maggie properly and points his crossbow at the ceiling so he doesn’t startle at any sudden noises and accidentally shoot her in the gut. “You’re s’posed to be checkin’ out the pharmacy.”
“Glenn’s got it.”
“Yeah, an’ he needs you to watch his back. You want him to get bit over there on his own?”
Maggie flinches, and Daryl’d probably feel bad about that if she hadn’t been the one to start this shit up in the first fucking place.
Could be that he feels sorta bad about it, anyway, because hell if he hasn’t gone a little soft lately on account of this ragtag bunch of assholes.
“G’on.” Daryl jerks his chin to indicate a point over Maggie’s shoulder. If he were the touchy-feely type, he’d pat her on the arm or something, but he isn’t, so he doesn’t. “I got it, alright? Somethin’ happens, I’ll holler.”
Maggie squeezes her crossed arms against her stomach. She’s practically vibrating on the spot, like she’d tear herself in half if she could, if it meant being able to watch out for both Glenn and Beth at once.
“Alright,” she pronounces, and Daryl suspects that she only came to a decision at all because she didn’t want to leave Beth and Glenn unsupervised for any longer. She sticks out her chin. “You’ll bring her right over?”
Christ, what does she think Beth is, exactly? A lost dog? “Yeah,” he grunts, and turns back around before Maggie can suggest that they put Beth on one of those toddler leashes that white suburbanites were always hooking their kids to before the world went and offed itself.
The Piggly Wiggly’s fluorescent lights have long since given up the ghost, but there’s plenty of late morning sunlight streaming in through the windows up front, and Daryl’s navigated worse with less. He steps over a flattened cardboard cutout that used to go along with some kinda display for RC Cola, nudges a sign advertising lotto tickets out of his path, and follows the sounds of muted rustling and even quieter breathing until he finds Beth.
She must’ve heard him coming, because she smiles when she sees that it’s him, taking her hand off the hilt of the Bowie knife he gave her a week after the farm fell. She was sitting forward on her knees, but now she leans back on her haunches and resumes rooting around a bottom shelf.
“Hey, Daryl,” she says, because he’s finally convinced her to stop calling him Mr. Dixon. Mr. Dixon was his fucking dad, for Christ’s sake. “Whatcha doin’ over here? It time to go already?”
“Nah. Not just yet.” Daryl shoulders his crossbow and ventures into the aisle, stepping over what looks like a spill of powdered cereal—the dyed, sugary kind that’ll rot your teeth outta your skull as sure as a bowl of candy. “Whatcha lookin’ for?”
“Well, I don’t think I’m gonna find it, I’ll tell you that much. Shoot.” Beth straightens up and plants her hands on her hips, blowing out a frustrated breath that stirs the frizzy strands of hair that’ve come loose from her ponytail. Daryl’s fingers twitch like they want to tuck those stray tufts of hair behind her ears or something, which, what the fuck? Is he stroking out? “Too bad the world didn’t end in October.”
Yeah. Definitely stroking out. “Huh?”
Beth smirks like she’s making fun of him—no, not making fun, because that’s too mean spirited and Beth Greene don’t got a mean bone in her skinny little body. Teasing him, more like it, and forget the dead walking, that’s how you know the world’s ended, because in no saner scenario would a cornfed teenager like her have the nerve to tease a mean old redneck like him.
“Y’know, October? Tenth month of the year, Halloween’s on the thirty-first—you have heard of Halloween, right?”
“Rings a couple bells,” Daryl says, and Beth giggles. Yet more proof they’re in the end times: he’s never made nobody giggle before. He crouches down next to her and peers at the shelf she was digging through, but all he sees are some empty wrappers and emptier plastic bags. “What’s Halloween got to do with anythin’, anyway?”
“Well,” says Beth, “it’s fall.”
The leaves turning over accompanied by the growing chill in the air would indicate as much, yeah. “No shit.”
Beth doesn’t let his lack of enthusiasm deter her, because of course she doesn’t. “And, well, we can’t know for sure without a calendar, but we should be comin’ up on Halloween, right? If we haven’t passed it already. Anyway, the point is—”
There’s a point? Thank Christ.
“—I know Carl can’t go trick-or-treating or anythin’ like that, but I was tryin’ to find some candy so he’d have somethin’, at least. And if all this—stuff—had started right around October of last year, there’d be big bags of sweets lyin’ around. Y’know, for the trick-or-treaters?”
Yeah, Daryl knows what she means, even though he never went trick-or-treating himself. Closest he ever came to it was getting bullied into going out on Mischief Night with Merle. “Uh-huh.”
“Yeah, well, as it is, I can’t even find a freakin’ Hershey bar.” Beth crosses her arms and scowls at the empty shelf like it just grew a tongue and insulted her mother. “Why’s everybody gotta raid the candy, jeez.”
Was that a rhetorical question? Just in case it wasn’t, Daryl shrugs and says, “Candy bar’s better’n no food at all, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, you’re right. Stupid question.” Beth unfolds her arms and rests her hands in her lap. Picks at her cuticles. She looks…sad. Defeated. “So much for that, huh?”
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Daryl suppresses a surge of panic. Mumbles, “Don’t worry about it. It’d only piss Carl off, anyways, you treatin’ him like a kid.”
Going by the wounded deer look Beth gives him, he said exactly the wrong thing, because of course he fucking did. “But he is a kid.”
He’s got some firsthand experience with this, at least, thanks to his hazy memories of what it was like to be a preteen boy. “Yeah, he is. Don’t mean he wants the reminder, an’ besides, he—”
Yeah, nope. Daryl coughs and subsides; and Beth’s expression shifts from hurt to curious, which is frankly worse. “He what?”
Daryl glances around, cocking his head to one side as he listens for approaching walkers. None, unfortunately, manifest themselves, so he drops his gaze and scratches his fingernails against his crossbow’s strap; they’re getting ragged and need trimming. “’Cause he’s got a crush on you, Jesus. Wants you to think’a ’im as a man, prob’ly, an’ grown men don’t go fuckin’ trick-or-treating. Shit, girl, don’t tell me you ain’t noticed ’im moonin’ after ya all over the damn place.”
“Oh.” Beth giggles again, albeit nervously. “Yeah, I’ve, uh. I’ve noticed. I think it’s ’cause—well, ’cause I’m the only girl he knows who’s close to his age, ain’t I? Slim pickings, y’know?”
He doesn’t mean to snort, but it happens anyway. Just who does this girl thinks she’s fooling? Yeah, she’s the only girl Carl knows who’s sorta close to his age, but even if there were twenty teenage girls in their group, Daryl’d bet his crossbow that Carl wouldn’t have eyes for anyone but Beth. Daryl never had a lot of crushes himself, growing up—and by not a lot he means none at all—but if he had, he thinks he probably would’ve gone for someone like the girl in front of him.
But thinking about that shit makes his chest go all tight like he’s been running for miles without a break, so he resolves to stop thinking about it. Or would, anyway, if Beth didn’t ask, “What’s so funny?”
Like hell he’s gonna tell her. “Nothin’.”
“C’mon, don’t gimme that.” Beth tilts her head like she’s trying to catch Daryl’s eye, sloppy ponytail waterfalling over her shoulder. “You think I’m silly, don’t you? For wantin’ to do somethin’ like this.”
“Little bit,” Daryl admits, but he doesn’t like the self-deprecating cant to Beth’s smile, so he adds, “I get it, though. You’re jus’ tryna do somethin’ nice for the kid.”
“Tryin’,” Beth stresses, still with that self-deprecating little half smile that Daryl really fucking hates for some goddamn reason. She pushes to her feet and offers him a hand up, and he gives that hand the hairy eyeball before standing under his own power. Beth shrugs and giggles and wrinkles her nose, all, Well, I offered.
Daryl tries very, very hard not to think that that shit’s cute as hell. Tries and fails because, much as he’d like to pretend otherwise, he doesn’t actually have a heart of stone, and this girl here is adorable enough to put cartoon bunnies to shame.
“C’mon,” he says, and Beth falls into step with him, hand brushing her knife’s hilt every couple of seconds. Good. “Your sister’s been askin’ after ya.” Honestly, he’s just surprised she didn’t come charging over here when Daryl failed to return Beth to her immediately.
“And here I was thinkin’ you just wanted some company,” Beth says, way too brightly for a girl who’s lost just about everything, but that’s just Beth, ain’t it? That’s just how she is. Always putting on a brave face so folks don’t worry about her. She’s probably putting one on right now, and fuck if that doesn’t soften something right under his sternum as surely as butter left out to melt in the sun.
So he snorts again, gives her shoulder a fleeting nudge, and if the smile she tosses him simultaneously makes him want to run away and do everything he can to keep her smiling like that, well, hell. He’ll just have to live with that shit, won’t he?
Daryl makes a fist and taps out the first five notes of “Shave and a Haircut”—Glenn’s idea, not his—against the front door of the bungalow they’re squatting in, and the person on the other side responds with the final two notes before undoing the locks. Carol was on watch when he left, but it’s been long enough, by his reckoning, that she could’ve swapped out with someone else in the meantime.
Someone else turns out to be Beth, which is mildly surprising. Beth almost never gets tagged for watch, like just ’cause she ain’t quite finished growing yet, that means she don’t got functioning eyes and ears.
Well, it’s convenient, anyway, because Beth’s the reason he went out in the first place. He gives her a mute nod and steps over the threshold, plastic bags rattling in his fist.
Beth tucks her gun into its holster, then shuts and locks the door before dragging a heavy-looking armchair in front of it. A gas lantern’s burning on the floor, turned down low so it doesn’t draw dead eyes to their boarded-up windows.
“Hey,” she says quietly, a concession to the people who’re sleeping fitfully in the living room off the front hallway (fitfully, because that’s the only way anybody sleeps, anymore). “Carol told me you left right around sunset. I think she was startin’ to worry.”
Beth doesn’t say, So was I, but Daryl hears it, anyway. He ducks his head, clears his throat.
“Yeah, well, m’fine.” He hefts the two plastic shopping bags and holds them out to Beth. “Here. Take ’em.”
She does, hooking one bag over her arm so she can open the other and peer inside. Her already big eyes get bigger, and Daryl can’t tell if it’s tears or the lanternlight that’s making them swim. God, he hopes it’s the second one.
“I—” Beth’s mouth works soundlessly. “Where’d you. Where’d you get all this?”
Daryl shrugs, kind of wishing that he hadn’t done it in the first fucking place. People looking at him like he’s trash, that’s fine, he’s used to that, but this.
He doesn’t know what to do with the way Beth’s looking at him. Can’t even describe how she’s looking at him; all he knows is that he wants her to stop.
“Around,” he mumbles, glancing towards the den like he can will someone into stumbling on out of there to take a midnight piss and break up whatever the hell this is. “Stopped by a couple’a drugstores further out. Some houses. Ain’t no supersized bags of Reese’s in there, but it’ll do, I guess.”
Beth stops staring at him like he just handed her a fucking diamond, at least—not that diamonds are worth anything anymore, come to think of it—and starts grinning instead, grins so wide he can’t believe it fits her face. She does a little jig on the spot, looking so ridiculous that Daryl smirks in spite of himself, but then her arms twitch like she wants to throw them around his neck, and his smirk curdles into a warning glare.
She doesn’t hug him, thank fuck. And it’s not that he thinks it’d be all the terrible, getting hugged by Beth Greene; it’s just that he’s afraid he’d throw her off on reflex and accidentally hurt her.
“God, Daryl, this is just—thank you so much.” Beth hugs the bags to her chest. “I could—”
Could, what? Daryl doesn’t get to find out, because Beth breaks off with a cough, and that might be the lanternlight turning her face red, but he doesn’t think so.
He squints at her. “Yeah?”
Beth shakes her head so hard her ponytail whips from side to side. “Nah, I—it’s nothin’. Don’t worry about it.”
He ain’t worried about it, but it’s bugging him. “C’mon, spit it out. You’re pissin’ me off.”
Beth huffs. Scowls. Fixes him with a challenging look as if to remind him that he’s the one who asked for this. “I was gonna say that I could kiss you. Happy?”
Daryl has to clench his jaw to keep his mouth from falling right the fuck open. His face’s burning like bacon left to sizzle on a skillet, and it ain’t because of the faint heat coming off of that lantern.
Shit. He did ask for it, didn’t he?
Beth giggles nervously. Daryl hears it, but he doesn’t see the shape of it on her mouth, because he’s suddenly staring real hard at his boots. “It’s just a figure of speech. I mean, I wouldn’t actually.”
Daryl scowls, scuffs his feet. Yeah. No shit.
“Not that there’s anythin’ wrong with—” She cuts her own self off again, but Daryl doesn’t press her this time. Nah, he’s learned his damn lesson.
And since he’s staring so hard at the floor, he’s treated to an excellent view of Beth’s dusty cowgirl boots. Those boots shuffle in place for a second before turning around and heading towards the armchair. She plunks herself down, rustles through the bags. Then the rustling stops, and she clears her throat.
“Hey. C’mere a sec?”
He wants to be ornery and go charging off without another word, but he was planning on taking watch when he got back, anyhow, and it ain’t like shit can get more awkward, so he shuffles over to Beth and squats in front of the chair, putting his eyes on level with her chest. He flushes harder, looks at her face instead—which is a mistake, because that face is set in a gentle expression, like she’s trying to coax a stray mutt into eating out of her hand.
As it turns out, she kind of is, because now she’s offering him a piece of candy.
It’s a Hershey Kiss. Daryl snorts, and Beth grins. “Get it? It’s a kiss.”
Daryl rolls his eyes. “Yeah. Real funny.” Beth nudges the candy at him, and he shakes his head. “Nah. Should save it for the kid.”
“There’s plenty. It won’t hurt if you take one, c’mon.”
“Ain’t gonna quit buggin’ me till I do, huh?” Beth doesn’t deny it, just grins shamelessly, and Daryl huffs and takes the goddamn candy, fingernails grazing her dry palm. He rips off the foil wrapper, balls it up and tosses it into a corner before popping the chocolate into his mouth. It’s the best thing he’s tasted in months—he can’t deny that—and he rolls it around in his mouth, savoring it.
Beth’s looking at his mouth as it works over the piece of candy—he doesn’t want to notice that, but he does. Doesn’t want to notice the weird warm bubble expanding in his abdomen, either, but that shit’s out of his hands, too. He swallows what’s left of the chocolate and nods at the bags in Beth’s lap, grasping clumsily for some kinda distraction.
“Y’should have some, too,” he says, voice coming out thick and raspy like he’s been smoking instead of eating a piece of candy. And speaking of: he could really use a fucking cigarette right about now. “G’on. ’Fore that black hole with legs gets to ’em.”
Beth gives in with suspicious ease, but he can’t blame her for that. Chocolate’s chocolate. “Okay, alright,” she says, rooting through a bag until she unearths another Hershey Kiss. Daryl wants to tell her she oughta take one of the bigger chocolate bars for herself, ration it out over days, but he knows she won’t listen. She’ll want to save those for Carl.
She doesn’t unwrap the candy right away, though, just rolls it around between her fingers. “Y’know, we never got that many trick-or-treaters. Back at the farm, I mean.”
Daryl hasn’t heard any of the Greenes talk about the farm since it fell. He sits back on his ass and makes a noise that could be interpreted as encouragement or plain simple acknowledgement; what she does with it is up to her.
She takes Door Number One, like he figured she would. Finally unwraps the chocolate and pops it into her mouth before saying, “It was just too out of the way, y’know? Nobody wanted to walk that far. So my momma, she’d, um, after a few years, she started takin’ us trunk-or-treating in the school parking lot instead.”
“Oh! It’s, um, it’s when a bunch of folks get together and hand out candy from the trunks of their cars. It’s s’posed to be a safer alternative to trick-or-treating, I guess.”
Daryl hums a wordless acknowledgement, but otherwise doesn’t make an effort to keep the conversation going. She doesn’t ask whether he ever went trick-or-treating, at least. He’d probably lash out at her if she did, and she don’t deserve that shit.
Except she’s gone back to looking at him like she had earlier, which is somehow worse. “Seriously, Daryl. Thank you for this.”
Now would be an excellent time to beat a hasty retreat, but Daryl can’t convince his legs to move. He mutters, “Ain’t a big deal, damn.”
“It is,” Beth insists, and he’s not looking at her face anymore, but he suspects she’s scowling. Spoiled little thing hates being told she’s wrong.
But, nah. He knows that ain’t it.
He sees her move, but he still startles when her fingertips graze his shoulder. Startles again when her lips land on his cheek, dry and chapped but so fucking soft, and he doesn’t mean for it to happen, doesn’t mean to turn his head, but those lips wind up catching on the corner of his mouth, so he can feel the flutter of her breath when she gasps, can taste the film of chocolate clinging to the inner rim of her lower lip.
Beth’s hand clenches against his shoulder. His hands clench in his lap. He breaks away with a gasp of his own and ducks his head, breath sawing in his lungs, heart beating against his ribs like a trapped animal against the bars of a cage. Shit. Shit. He forces himself to look up, to apologize—
Except, Beth. Beth’s looking at him like she had when he brought her the chocolate, but it’s bigger, somehow, than it was. More.
She clears her throat. Her face’s redder than Daryl’s ever seen it. “Uh. I guess it wouldn’t hurt, would it? If we took a candy bar for ourselves.”
She’s still holding on to him. She’s still holding him, and he’s not ducking out from under her touch. Doesn’t really want to.
He doesn’t know what the hell to do with this, whatever this is. Doesn’t think he’ll ever be equipped to cope with it. For now, though—
“Nah,” he says. Licks the taste of chocolate, of her, off his tingling lips. “Guess it wouldn’t.”