Daryl knows Hershel Greene thinks his ma doesn't smoke, and she somehow believes that even with them about to live together she can keep it that way. It's why she's sat beside Daryl in his truck, jaw going a mile a minute on her Nicorette and filling the cabin with the sickly smell of burnt cinnamon. Daryl wouldn't usually mind it so much—he's slept in fucking beds that smell worse—but today it won't stop grating on his nerves. His heart's started to pound to the beat of her smacks, the drumline her fingers take up on the dash when she parks the gum against her teeth, like if she pauses for a moment her body will explode. Even with the Top 40 station playing quietly from the speakers, he hears it clear as day.
The bubblegum pop irks him almost as much as his ma's chewing does, but it's not like he can change it; it's what they always play, when his ma's in the car. “Have to know what the kids are listening to these days,” she says, like she's writing a fucking research paper. Never mind she hasn't written more than a shopping list since before Daryl was born. It was something she talked about, writing again, back when she first decided to get sober; but it's been a year and aside from the small purple notebook she picked up at the dollar store he hasn't seen hide nor tail of it.
So he tries to ignore her. Tries not to let the way she's practically thrumming in her seat distract him and run them off the thin winding road. Keeps his chin up, eyes straight ahead, hands the level of a lady's tits, just like Merle taught him.
He almost wishes Merle were with them now, as he looks up at the approaching farmhouse; can hear his brother filling this peculiar ecstatic silence with sneers about the tight-assedness of the place, its fresh-painted walls and stately shingled roof, looks like the well-meaning cotter's home that gets burned down in fairytales.
Daryl snorts quietly at that. He'd be the big bad wolf, wouldn't he, if that story were this one; come to blow the homestead down.
The house does belong in a fairytale, with its wraparound porch, a patch of yellow flowers growing by the steps. But to Daryl it also looks menacing, dominating the arable landscape and casting a shadow on the car as it rolls to a stop.
He finally looks at his ma and finds her, as usual, oblivious to his sour mood. She's gazing up at the house like it really is the palace in a fairytale, Daryl's shitty truck her golden chariot, this Hershel Greene her dashing prince.
Hershel Greene and his ma have been seeing each other for a year and they've been engaged a few weeks, but Daryl still hasn't met the man. It isn't like his ma is hiding him; she told Daryl, after all, when he asked why she was smiling the first night after AA, that she'd met the man of her dreams. For months he’s closed his ears and stared into his corn puffs as she’s prattled on about the flowers Hershel buys her or the horse he let her ride or his charming fucking kids (Daryl nearly asked her once if she'd rather he moved out of state so she could adopt them instead; it was sort of a moot point when she got engaged the next day). “The dirty details,” she calls these conversations. Not that they'd ever done it, of course, oh no; this Hershel Greene is a gentleman. She doesn't say “not like your father”—old Will Dixon, got her knocked up on their first date, didn't even make the delivery room—but Daryl hears it plain as day.
Part of him wants to believe it. Wants to see someone other than himself take the hand covered in cigarette burns and what the police would've called “defensive wounds” if she'd ever gone to the station. Wants to believe the way her smile isn't broken anymore.
But honestly, he doesn't plan to make introductions any sooner than he has to. Not to Hershel Greene, and not to his kids. He's here to help his ma and get the hell out.
She's looking at him now, he realizes, and he pretends to ignore it; stares fiercely out the window at an old trampoline. Unlike the ones in his neighborhood, it looks well maintained, maybe even safe to play on without a tetanus shot. His breath sounds loud in the silence of the car and he startles a little when his ma says his name.
“What?” he asks, gentling what would have been a snap into a grumble.
She doesn't put her hand on him like another mother might; just waits for him to turn around. Her eyes are tired, as they always are, with heavy bags beneath from her insomnia; her skin lined from fifty years of chain-smoking and binge-drinking. But there's a smile in her gaze, now, that he'd never seen before this year. The beginning of happiness.
It makes something low in his gut—something like jealousy, something like unease—unsettle and roll and land in a smoldering pile at her feet.
“You ok with carrying all those boxes yourself? We can wait for Hershel—“
“Nah, I got it,” Daryl says.
“Ok.” Eleanor folds her hands in her lap, tilting her head back with a sigh. She gazes at the house, grey eyelashes fluttering. “You ever think we'd be living somewhere like this?”
“Ain't me, Ma. Just you.”
She turns to him, frowning a little. “You know Hershel says you're welcome.”
Eleanor Dixon is not tall, but she isn't small either; people are always surprised to learn that Daryl and Merle get their heft from her. It took the women's shelter aback, seeing a woman with shoulders like a linebacker stumbling in with broken ribs and cigarette brands, especially when her skinny-dick husband came roaring in after her. But for his height and the hump of his belly, Will Dixon could never be called a big man; long as he didn't have a knife, the thimble-sized secretaries manning the intake room were enough to put him out on his ass.
These women looked at her and they looked at her husband, and every time, they asked Eleanor: Why didn't you fight back? Built like an ox with a husband like that—bean-thin neck and arms like chicken legs—why didn't you protect yourself? Why didn't you protect your boys?
Eleanor only took them there a few times. After that she'd be too drunk to even make it down the street.
“Nah, this is for you.” Daryl clears his throat. “A fresh start, right?”
She puts her hand on the seat at her side; his eyes flicker towards her. “Don't mean I don't want you with me.”
Daryl shrugs. “Still. First time I got a place to myself, right? Might be nice.”
His ma grins at him. “Might not be just you for long.”
Daryl rolls his eyes, gritting his teeth. “Ma...”
“Plenty of daughters at those antique sales Hershel takes me to...”
“Ain't getting no grandchildren from Merle...”
She throws her head back and cackles. No soft giggles with his ma.
“Ain't funny,” he grumbles, yanking the keys out of the ignition and sticking them in his pocket.
“Oh, you know it is.” She smacks the seat. “What is it with you Dixons and girls, huh? Merle can't keep one, you can't get one. And y'all so handsome too.”
“Ain't like we had no model relationship,” Daryl grumbles.
And there it is—the whip-crack silence that splits the car, strikes his ma's expression onto her face like a brand. He's used to this, the way she freezes when anything uncomfortable gets brought up, like a deer in his bow-sight, or a possum in the road—more like a possum, really, cause as he's grown he's grown to realize recalling the past is no different from crossing a highway, busy with memories to run you down.
So she sits, blinking, same smile, same posture, looking at him, and Daryl feels the familiar drip of shame begin to plunk into his gut.
Just when he's about to cut and run her smile twitches, and she reaches for her purse.
“C'mon while the getting's good!”
Daryl watches her swing out of the truck, stumbling a little when she hits the ground. Sighing, Daryl follows.
The air, when it hits, is alien to him, scented heavily of hayseed and horses; not the fog of the city but not the cleanness of the woods either. Something between, maybe, or something apart; whatever it is, it tickles his nose and he has to work his jaw to hold off a sneeze.
“How the fuck will you manage your allergies out here?” he asks, hurrying to the bed of the truck before she can try unloading her things herself.
“I'll get used to it,” she says, rolling her eyes when Daryl shoulders her gently out of the way. The box is heavy, but even so he hefts it easily. Practically skipping, she leads the way up the drive.
He expects her to ring the bell, but instead she starts fishing around in her purse. She pulls out the keys to their apartment (his apartment, he reminds himself, just his). It's still on the ring with the rabbit's foot he made for her when he was twelve, but it isn't alone anymore. A freshly cast key sits alongside it, which she takes carefully in her hand.
“He made you a key?” Daryl asks, hefting the box up higher.
“I live here too, now, don't I?” She glances at him. “He made one for you, too.”
Eleanor sighs silently and fits the key into the lock.
They step into the foyer and Daryl doesn't think he's been in a house this nice his whole life. It looks like something from the movies; antique furniture and clean smooth hardwood, paintings and family pictures taking up an appropriate amount of wall space. Except for a softcover book on the coffee table, there isn't an ounce of clutter anywhere; even the work-boots by the door have their own little cubbies.
“We need to take our shoes off or something?” Daryl asks out the corner of his mouth.
Eleanor snorts quietly. “No, he ain't that bad. Just likes his space neat.” Eleanor is quiet for a moment, looking around. “He has a housekeeper, you know,” she says. “Every Sunday, while he's at church. Does all the dusting, vacuuming.” She stands up a little straighter, looking at Daryl with a crooked grin. “I'm a lady with a housekeeper, now.”
“Don't let it go to your head,” Daryl mutters. He looks around once more, purposefully letting his eyes slide unseeing across the family pictures. “Where ya want—“
He's cut off by a shout from upstairs; it's so sudden it nearly has him dropping the box and reaching for his knife, never mind he doesn't have it on him. Moments later they hear the rapid patter of socked feet on the stairs. A pair of slim legs emerge.
“Maggie, where'd you stash your tampons? I ran out and it got all over my undies again...”
She trails off as they come into view, slowing her downward race until she stops three steps short of the bottom. She's wearing a tank top and loose blue pajama bottoms and he can't help zeroing in on the space between her thighs.
When he looks up she's staring at him with possibly the biggest eyes he has ever seen, and for the first time in weeks he feels the strangest urge to burst out laughing.
“Uh. You're not Maggie.”
“No.” The word slips through without Daryl's permission, and he feels his own neck flush as she continues to hold his gaze.
“Ok.” Finally she looks away from him. She raises her hand in an awkward little wave. “Hi Eleanor.”
Luckily, his ma is used to ignoring uncomfortable situations, and speaks as if nothing strange is happening. “Hi Bethy. Sorry we're early, your dad said—“
“Yeah, I knew you were coming, I just didn't...” She glances at Daryl again, lingering for a beat too long before she visibly pulls herself together. “Sorry, I should be dressed.” She spins around on the steps, tossing over her shoulder, “You just throw that anywhere, I'll be back in a jiffy!”
They hear a dozen smacks of feet on wood, the slam of a door, and all is silence.
Daryl and Eleanor stand by each other, staring at the stairs where the girl had vanished.
“Well,” Eleanor says. “Meet your new sister.”
She's waiting downstairs when Daryl gets inside with the second box.
He left Eleanor outside on the phone with Hershel; is glad he doesn't need to be near that sickly sweet tone in her voice for too long, like she's finally seen the sunshine or some shit. Without some prompting they never get to the actual conversation; just recount every minute since they've last spoken like they're each other's verbal diaries. Daryl's used to it with his ma, the way she goes on and on regardless of whether her audience (usually Daryl) is listening or not. It's one of the reasons she got beat so often, the way she never shut up. It wasn't that Pop didn't want noise—he'd play old Doc Watson records loud as anything, have his buddies from work over and rock the house till the sun shone—but it had to be his noise. Nothing else would do.
It's why he couldn't stand his wife's prattling: No matter how much he beat her down, how much he spat in her eye or called her worthless, Eleanor Lanou Dixon's voice belonged to her.
And now she has someone to give it back to her, Daryl thinks as he pauses on the porch, glancing back before shouldering the door open. His ma's leaning on his truck like he imagines she would have when she was a teenager: shoulders back and hip cocked, phone clutched in one sweaty hand as she smooths her hair with the other. The light in her eyes is almost manic, the way it darts here and there, settling on a wave of grass or the wood of a fence, breathing life into old things. Breathing life into her, in a way Daryl'd never been able to do. Never really tried, all those times he closed his ears.
“Worthless sack of shit,” he mutters as the door smacks into his ass, held out so it won't hit the doorframe.
Daryl nearly jumps out of his skin at the sudden breezy voice, dropping halfway into a crouch and gripping the box tight.
Then he sees, for the second time this day, that it's the girl—Beth, his new sister, Christ—straightening from where she's leaning on the bannister, shooting him a shy little smile and fiddling with a loose part of her thumbnail. A collection of bracelets, no two alike, jangle from her wrist. She's changed into a t-shirt and jeans, throwing her hair in a messy ponytail that's already falling to pieces. He realizes she's quite pale without a blush suffusing her face and neck.
Daryl straightens with a scowl. “None'a your damn business,” he mutters. He stalks over to the stairs, pretending not to watch her as he sets the box down by the first.
“Ooooook,” she says, drawing out the word like a stretched piece of bubblegum. He's surprised she isn't chewing any, to be honest; with those busted-up cowboy boots and acid-washed jeans, she has the innocent farmgirl look down to a T. All but that pale skin; barely has freckles, although he isn't close enough to really see.
Girl must keep her lazy ass inside; don't stay that white from working a farm, the part of him that sounds like his daddy whispers; he flinches his shoulders to dislodge the specter, but it won't quite let go; he glances at her and wonders bitterly what scars she could have, beyond paper-cuts.
“Anything I can help with?”
Daryl snorts before he can stop himself, looking her up and down with a derisive jerk of his chin.
“'Less those spaghetti arms got some kinda warp drive, I don't think you'd be much help here.”
He can see every individual emotion pass across her face: shock, then hurt, then anger, then a simmering irritation that reminds him of a cat lashing its tail.
This is the kind of girl can't hide anything, he thinks as she crosses her arms, tightening her expressive brow.
“You always this rude, or is this special for me?”
“You always scream about your girl parts in front of strangers?”
Daryl allows himself a moment of glee as red suffuses her face again. He smirks at her obvious discomfort and turns back towards the door. Before he's fully turned away, however, he sees her body shift, winching up her resolve and tightening her face and then she's stepping between him and the door, going up on tiptoe and saying to his face:
“I'm betting that's the closest you've gotten to girl parts in years, Daryl Dixon.”
Daryl blinks, a flush creeping up his own neck now. He knows he should say something, deny it maybe, but the shock of hearing the truth from this pipsqueak of a thing has him taken aback. As the silence runs on too long he watches in mild horror as her expression morphs back into shock, and then into a touch of contrition.
“Oh,” she says.
Damn, boy, little bitty's got your number, don't she?
Daryl huffs out a breath and turns away from her, filling his chest as he heads for the boxes.
“I'm sorry,” she says from behind him, “I didn't—“
“Fuck off,” he mutters, pulling out his switchblade and cutting through the tape. Against his will he tries to remember the last time he got near some girl parts, and for a moment comes up short. He knows he would've been drunk when it happened, probably shoved into a back room with a girl and some whiskey like a gladiator into the lion's den. Knows, knowing him, he would've come too soon, or been too rough, or done something she didn't like until she got exasperated and rolled away, leaving him to stare at the ceiling and wonder why he doesn't feel more bothered.
Yeah, so maybe it's been a while. Maybe, the way she must be thinking of it, all romantic-like on white sheets with smooth jazz playing in the background, it's been always. And he's ok with that, usually. He has his hand, has his imagination; not like he could bring girls around with Merle and Ma in and out of his place anyway. Maybe now, with Ma here and Merle where-the-fuck-ever, he'll have more chances to get his dick wet.
He doesn't look at the girl; doesn't want her to see how that thought fills him with dread.
He busies himself rearranging things in the box at random, hoping she'll take the cue and leave. But he doesn't hear her footsteps receding; instead, they're coming closer, tightening his spine with every pat of her feet. She mounts the stairs and he expects her to keep going and leave him be, but she stops about level with his head, sitting down and looking at him through the bannister.
“What?” he asks shortly.
He sees her shrug out of the corner of his eye. She's looking at her hands, fiddling with a silver bracelet. “You think you'll be here often?”
He doesn't want to look at her but he does, turning in his crouch, eyes narrowed to slits. “What, you don’t think I should be here or something?”
She rolls her eyes. “Of course not. It was just a question.” She tilts her head like an inquisitive bird. “Do you want to be here?”
He suddenly feels like the bannister bars are made of iron, and he's looking out through a cage. He feels subdued under her consideration, like she's cast some sort of spell; that she'll look at him like this, like his body is in braille and she's sweeping across it with the fingers of her eyes, reading him like a goddamn textbook, for as long as she damn well likes. And it is for a while, at least for him; him, crouched on his haunches above a box of his mother's things, getting read by some teenybopper. He wonders suddenly how old she is; he wonders what his ma has told her about him.
He wonders what she's figured out on her own.
Finally, her head goes back to center and he releases the breath he didn't realize he had been holding. He looks down at the box where his hands have been hanging limply, useless; he paws at the top layer just to pretend he'd come to this position with a purpose.
His whole body freezes when he sees it.
If he weren't avoiding this girl's gaze so intently, he never would have spotted it; just a glimpse of shimmer sticking out from one of his ma's sleep shirts. His heart pounds as he shifts the fabric aside to be sure, stutters a little when he sees it in full: a piece of scrap metal hammered and shaped into the figure of an owl. He remembers this owl, the stories attached to it; how when Ma was at her drunkest, she would gather Daryl to her chest and show him the thing Will Dixon used to propose to her, a thing he'd made with his own two hands. She'd rub her tears and slobber into the back of his skull as she told the story, whispering each time: “See how he loves me. See how he loves me.” She nearly killed herself twice over, pulling from the fireman's arms and running back into the house she burned down, just to find her little owl.
He thought she threw this out years ago.
“What is that?”
He jumps a little at her voice, almost dropping the figurine. He glances at the girl, then shoves it down out of sight.
“Nothing,” he mutters. “Just junk.”
“It's pretty,” she says. She's looking at him curiously again, like he's one big puzzle. “You staying for lunch?”
“No,” he says shortly. He stands, wincing a little at the creak in his knees. He hopes she didn't notice. “I gotta get outta here. If I leave'm in the drive, you can get the rest of the boxes?”
“What, with my spaghetti arms?” she asks, grinning cheekily.
“Whatever,” Daryl grumbles.
He reaches into his pocket for his car keys, glancing at her a moment. She has her arms wrapped around her knees as she looks up at him, ponytail tumbling down across her shoulder. She looks older, suddenly; as if between kneeling and standing she's grown older.
“Who the hell are you, anyway?”
If she's taken aback by his question, she doesn't show it; just tilts her head again, like a goddamn bird, eyeing him like a piece of bark she wants to peck away at.
When she speaks though, her voice has more of a lilt than a bite; something light and simple, as if he should know this already. Not that he's an idiot for not knowing; like it's something she told him long ago. Something he's forgotten.
She gives a shrug, a sheepish grin.
“I'm Beth,” she says.
However much he wants to, he can't argue with that.
He nods at her, and returns to his mother in the yard, resolutely driving the girl on the stairs from his mind.