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Stray Cat Strut

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Beth’s loitering by the eastern fence, knife in hand, but she’s not here to kill walkers. It’s been a slow day for fence clingers, thank God, and she’s only got her knife out at all because it’s plain common sense. You never know when the dead—or the living—are going to pop up from around the corner with bared teeth and an intent to kill.

Gravel crunches underfoot, but Beth doesn’t whirl around with the business end of her Bowie pointed out. She knows these footsteps, and she knows that she can only hear them because the person approaching from her left wants her to hear them. If he didn’t, then she probably wouldn’t know he was there at all.

Pebbles scatter across the toes of Beth’s boots when Daryl comes up beside her and loops his fingers through the chain-link fence. He doesn’t immediately break the silence, and Beth can’t tell if he means to and is just working up to what he wants to say, or if he really doesn’t have anything to say at all. You never know, with Daryl. He usually doesn’t approach people unless he has something that needs saying or doing, but sometimes he just likes to hang around in the same room as you and silently enjoy your company.

Beth’s not sure what it means, that he’s been doing more and more of the latter with her in particular lately—well, no, okay. Maybe she’s got an inkling as to what it might mean, but she’s not about to set herself up for disappointment, either.

She lets another few seconds of silence elapse, just to make sure that Daryl doesn’t intend to speak up first, and then she turns her head to study his profile. He’s squinting in the sunlight, which is normal, but his jaw’s about as relaxed as it ever gets. And that’s all she means to do, to gauge his mood, but then she gets distracted by the scruff on his chin. ’Cause it does funny things to her, makes her wonder how all that stubble would feel scraping over her own smooth cheeks, and she has to turn quickly away before he can look at her and see her blush.

She clears her throat to let him know she’s about to talk, then nods towards the woods. “See that?”

“What, the trees? See ’em all the damn time, girl.”

Beth wants to huff and call him a jerk, but she likes that he’s joking around with her, likes the camaraderie it implies. So she doesn’t call him a jerk, but she still huffs and rolls her eyes. “Har, har. Real funny. No, not the trees. The—”

“The cat. Yeah, I know.”

Beth’s unsurprised that he picked it out so quickly; after all, Daryl’s eyes are the sharpest ones they’ve got. “You seen him around before?”

“Been seein’ it around a lot lately. Wish it’d climb the fence or somethin’. We could use the pest control.”

Beth loops her fingers through the fence’s links, too, pinky finger almost, but not quite, brushing Daryl’s. She never thought of her hands as small—not big, not, small, just proportional to her height—but they look ridiculously tiny lined up next to Daryl’s. Tiny and pale and smooth, even though they really aren’t, even though she built up her share of calluses long before the world went to hell. She wants to wrap her small, callused hand around Daryl’s, but she hasn’t built up the nerve for it. Not quite yet, anyway.

She drags her attention away from their not-quite-touching hands and squints towards the woods, focusing on the dark little blob that darts out from between two trees to flop down on its side and groom its belly, one leg pointed straight in the air like a ballerina’s. Beth wants to smile, but she’s too anxious on the little guy’s behalf to do anything but frown.

Because walkers seem to prefer human flesh over every other kind of meat, almost like they’re trying to get back what they lost by devouring it, but the fact is that they’ll eat anything so long as it’s living. Animals are usually too fast for them, their instincts too sharp, but that doesn’t mean they never get caught. Beth’s seen the aftermath; she’s seen animal carcasses lying around all ripped up in the woods, the impressions of teeth on their torn-open throats unmistakably human—or formerly human.

And maybe it’s silly of her, because it won’t make a difference in the long run—she can’t save the world by saving one cat—but she doesn’t want this animal to wind up like the others. Couldn’t bear it if he did. What if he just stopped showing up one day, or worse, what if she saw—

Nope, no way. She’s not gonna think about that.  

She doesn’t want to take her eyes off the cat for even a second, not even for the length of time it takes to blink, but if she’s gonna do this, then she’s gotta make Daryl look her in the face, so she drags her fingers out from between the fence links and turns to confront him, hands clasped in front of her heart like a penitent. Daryl cocks an eyebrow at her in silent question, and she takes a steadying breath.  

“I wanna—I wanna try and catch him.”

Daryl snorts, and Beth’s heart begins to sink. “That ain’t happening.”

Beth is struck by the childish urge to stamp her foot, but she knows better than to actually do it. It wouldn’t help her case, and besides, she really, really doesn’t want Daryl to think of her as a kid. “You just said that you wish he’d climb the fence.”

Daryl squeezes his crossbow’s strap, squeezes it tight like he’s trying to throttle it—probably because he’s not allowed to throttle her. “That ain’t the same as goin’ out there an’ riskin’ our necks over a goddamn cat.” He jerks his chin at her. “Why you keep callin’ it a he, anyways? You get close enough to check its balls?”

Beth blushes, which is frankly infuriating, seeing as she grew up on a damn farm. God, but this man has a way of flustering the hell out of her. “No, I didn’t. I just saw ’im—y’know.”

“What?”

As if he can’t guess. Beth wiggles her fingers to imitate a waving tail. “I saw him—I saw him tinkle up against a tree, alright? Girl cats don’t spray to mark their territory like that.”

Tinkle?” Daryl echoes, mouth twitching like he wants to laugh. Normally that’d be nice—getting Daryl to laugh—except he’s laughing at her, and that’s not so nice.

“Will you help me catch him or not?” Beth presses.

Daryl doesn’t look like he wants to laugh anymore. No, not even a little bit. “Heard me the first time, didn’t ya? Said no. Ain’t lettin’ you get bit over a fuckin’ cat.”

Beth sucks her lower lip into her mouth, literally chewing on what she wants to say. She tries not to take Daryl’s protectiveness to personally; he’d treat any other member of their family the same way. Well, maybe not exactly the same. Not if it were Rick, or Michonne, or Carol or Maggie or Glenn or—but Beth knows that Daryl doesn’t think of her as some incompetent little kid. He was the one who advocated for her when she wanted to go on her first supply run, for starters. So maybe—

She can’t do this. Not right now. Later. Right now, she shoots the cat another look. He’s using a tree trunk as a scratching post, and there still aren’t any walkers in sight, but Beth damn well knows that could change at any moment, any second. “I just. It just doesn’t feel right. Leavin’ him out there.”

Daryl shifts from foot to foot. “He’s been fine on his own so far.” That’s what he says, but Beth doesn’t miss the swapped pronoun.

So she straightens her shoulders. Takes her eyes off the cat and points them at Daryl, looking him right in the face so he has no choice but to look back and see what this means to her.

“Wildcats are solitary animals,” she informs him. “But housecats aren’t. It wouldn’t be right to leave him out there on his own. Just ’cause he’s survived alright on his own up till now doesn’t mean he should have to.”

Daryl’s eyes waver between both of hers before breaking contact. He stares down at his shuffling feet for a second, then turns around, turns away. Beth’s shoulders slump. Guess she didn’t get through to him, after all.

But then he pauses. Tosses her a look over his shoulder. “You comin’?”

Beth blinks. Her heart feels suspended in her chest, prepared to leap or sink, depending on how this goes. “Huh?”

Daryl makes an impatient noise. “Said, you comin’? You wanna try an’ catch that goddamn cat or not?”

Beth stares at him for a few seconds too long, a grin slowly breaking out across her face. Daryl turns all the way around and gets moving again, but not before Beth notices the flush in his cheeks. She scrambles to catch up, practically skipping, and, buoyed by hope, works up the nerve to give Daryl’s shoulder a light nudge.

“You’re a real softie, Mr. Dixon.”  

Daryl nudges her back, hard, so that she nearly goes sprawling—and that still isn’t enough to wipe the grin off her face. “Won’t be callin’ me that when I kick your annoyin’ ass over the goddamn county line, girl.”

But he’s still blushing when he says it, and Beth’s smile grows and grows.

 


 

“Can you track him?” Beth asks. She’s whispering, but Daryl shushes her anyway.

“Can track ’im easier if ya keep ya trap shut,” he retorts, not even rustling the underbrush as he takes step after wary step through the woods. Beth scowls at the back of his head.

“You look with your eyes, not with your ears,” she mutters, but subsides when Daryl shoots her a quelling look over his shoulder. And, yeah, he has a point: he needs his eyes to track, but he needs his ears, too, not just to listen for the cat but to listen for walkers, so it probably would be best for her to shut her mouth.  

The cat had disappeared from where Beth last saw it by the time they made it past the fences, and she was convinced that Daryl was gonna call the whole thing off until he sighed and grumbled and gestured for her to follow him into the woods. She had to bite back a smile, then, suspecting that an unrestrained grin would probably only piss him off and obliterate what was left of his patience.

It was a near thing, though.

Daryl stops without warning, and Beth digs her heels into the dirt to keep from colliding with his broad back and possibly breaking her nose. She cocks her head and curls her fingers around the hilt of her knife, but refrains from asking any questions, just looks on as he kneels in the dirt and brushes aside some fallen leaves.

She creeps a little closer and pitches her voice to a whisper. “Tracks?”

Daryl rocks back on his heels and pushes to his feet, and his shoulder brushes Beth’s on his way up. He doesn’t, she can’t help but notice, immediately step out of her personal space. “Nah.” He jerks his chin at the little dark lumps that’re covered in a scattering of dirt. “Lil’ guy stopped to take a dump.”

Beth wrinkles her nose. “Oh.” Guess she’ll have to make a run for kitty litter, come to think of it.

“C’mon.” Daryl sidesteps the small pile of waste, and Beth’s certain to do the same. If she stepped in cat shit during an outing that was her idea, no way would Daryl ever let her live it down.

Light breaks in golden fractals through the canopy overhead, flares brighter as the branches gradually thin, and Daryl holds out an arm, stopping Beth in her tracks before she can take another step. She doesn’t stop quite in time, though, and her stomach presses up against his forearm, muscle biting into muscle. She goes still at the contact, goes even stiller when she gets a good look at the clearing.

The cat’s in there. So is a walker.

Beth fists her hand against her mouth to stop herself from crying out, heart stilling in her chest, anxiety ripping through her guts like a cold blade. The walker’s stumbling towards the cat, and the cat’s back is arched, fur standing on end as he hisses and spits. He could probably outrun the walker if he would just move, if he would just get the hell out of there

Daryl whistles, high and sharp, and the walker swivels slowly around, dull eyes focusing on the humans that stand at the mouth of the clearing. Daryl raises his crossbow, and the cat finally turns and goes racing up a tree, and.

And a bolt nails the walker square between the eyes, and it goes down like a stone.

“Jesus,” Beth breathes, hand dropping from her mouth to twist around her wrist. She looks at Daryl, waiting for his nod before approaching the sugar maple the cat went up. She squints and cranes her neck, at least one of the knots in her stomach unraveling when she picks out a pair of eyes gleaming down at her from a branch. She considers climbing up to it, but the branches look too spindly to support her weight.

She turns around to face Daryl, finds him retrieving his bolt and wiping off the gore on a scrubby patch of grass. She nods at the walker.

“Should we, um. Should we get rid of that?”

“Nah. The stink oughta be good cover while we wait it out.”

“Wait what out?”

Daryl nods at the sugar maple. “The cat. It’ll come down eventually.”

Beth doesn’t ask him what they’ll do if it doesn’t come down before nightfall. She already knows the answer to that question.

Daryl settles himself in front of a tree opposite the cat’s, and Beth joins him after a beat, drawing up her legs and looping her arms around her calves, chin propped on her knee.

She expects Daryl to lapse into silence, but he doesn’t. He asks, “What you want it so bad for, anyways? Even if we bring it back with us, it could still climb the fence an’ get out.”

“Yeah, I know.” Beth digs her chin against her knee and watches the sugar maple’s branches for any sign of movement. “I just—it’s like I said. It wouldn’t feel right, leavin’ him out here like this. And I miss having a pet, y’know? I know we got pigs and stuff now, but it ain’t the same.” She knows it’s a risky move, asking Daryl about his past—either he’ll get pissed or just brush it off—but the words slip out anyway. “What about you? Did you have any pets, growin’ up?”

“Nah,” Daryl says, and that’s it. Beth’s not sure why she bothered. She just wants to get to know him better, she supposes.

“I had a cat,” Beth says, speaking quietly as much in deference to the cat in the tree as Daryl’s need to keep his ears open for more walkers. You’d think the stink of the one in the clearing would bother her, but she’s so used to everything smelling like death that it doesn’t even faze her. “Had a whole bunch over the years, actually, but they were mostly barn cats; didn’t spend much time around people. There was this one tomcat; his name was Simba—”

Daryl snorts, and Beth suppresses a smile.

“Hey, don’t laugh. The Lion King came out the same year I was born, and it’s a good movie, okay? Anyway, Simba was kind of a grouch, didn’t like bein’ touched much, but he always liked me best. Would even let me pet ’im, sometimes.”

Daryl’s lips quirk. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Beth says, and, riding high on that tiny smile, she blurts, “Y’know, Daryl, you’re kinda like a cat.”

Daryl whips his head around to glare at her, eyes all squinty and offended, and—yeah. He’s proving her point for her. “The fuck you on about now, Greene?”

Well, since he asked. “Y’know, you seem all standoffish at first, always lurkin’ around and not sayin’ much’a anythin’ to anybody, but once you get used to a person, you start actin’ a little friendlier. You let ’em in a little bit.”

Daryl’s blushing again, and he scowls even harder like he’s trying to cover it up. He points a warning finger at her. “Better not try scratchin’ me under the chin, girl, y’know what’s good for ya.”

Beth giggles. “Not even behind the ears?” she asks, and Daryl flips her off. She giggles some more and faces front again, then freezes, eyes locking on the cat that climbed down from the tree while they weren’t looking. He freezes, too, when she makes eye contact, and she looks away, not wanting to scare him off.

She was gonna ask Daryl what he wants to do, but he presses a forefinger to his mouth to preemptively shush her and then slowly maneuvers his crossbow out of his lap. He shifts around to face Beth, and she follows suit, copying him when he lays a hand palm up in the grass.

That’s another thing that Daryl and cats have in common: you’ve got to wait for them to come to you.

Beth tries to stifle her giggle when Daryl’s knee bumps her, but she can’t contain the little huff that escapes her when she feels whiskers tickling her wrist, followed by the brush of a cold nose. She peeks at the cat from the corner of her eye, smiling when she sees him rubbing his face against Daryl’s fingers, fingers that curl and scratch him under his chin.  

“Shut the hell up,” Daryl mumbles, and Beth blinks and shrugs, all, I didn’t even say anything.

The cat climbs into Daryl’s lap, a rusty purr grating in his throat, and blinks big green eyes at Beth when she scratches him between his ears. He steps daintily out of Daryl’s lap and into hers when she gives him attention, claws sinking into her shoulder, and she wraps her arms around him and stands carefully up, combs her fingers through his fur and picks out brambles. He doesn’t try to wriggle away, so she figures they’re good.

“Good boy,” Beth croons, scratching him on the base of his neck. He purrs even louder when she does that, so loud she can feel it rumbling in her sternum. “You’re comin’ home with us, alright? That okay with you, buddy?”

Daryl rolls his eyes when she talks to the cat like it can answer her, but there’s a smile playing at his mouth, so he must think that one or both of them is pretty darn cute.

Beth hopes it’s both of them.

“Ain’t black cats s’posed to be bad luck?” he asks her as they start heading back towards the prison, and Beth scoffs and shakes her head.

“No, they ain’t. They’re sweet lil’ babies with a bad rap.” Beth smirks. “You'd know how that is, wouldn't you, Daryl?”

“Fuck off,” Daryl says, reflexively and without any real heat, and Beth tsks at him and cups a hand over the cat’s big pointy ears.

“Watch what you say in front’a Binx.”

Daryl scoffs. “Binx?”

“Yeah. Binx.” Beth scratches the cat under his chin, smiling when he yawns and flashes long canines. My, what big teeth you have. “Y’know, like in the movie.”

“Dunno what the hell you’re talkin’ ’bout,” Daryl says, but when Beth leans into his side, he doesn’t step away or push her off. He stiffens for a second, and then relaxes all at once, free hand sliding around her waist to cup her hip, tentative but warm and heavy. That’s real nice. Like, really, really nice.

Binx purrs, and Daryl keeps his arm around her for the whole walk back to the prison.