What’s Next

Summary: Set at the funeral home, Beth is not taken, and decides she wants to do something nice for Daryl to thank him for making sure she was safe and taken care of. Let’s just say that things don’t exactly go smoothly.

Rating: T

Word Count: 5,657


“I mean it, Greene,” Daryl growled at her. “You stay right here til I get back.”

Beth sighed and nodded solemnly, making sure to keep her smile hidden. She loved and hated when he got like this.

It was just a sprained ankle. It had taken forever to heal when she’d found the hunter’s trap with the heel of her boot, despite Daryl giving her the serious piggy back ride through the graveyard leading up to the funeral home, despite him wrapping it for her, despite him insisting on carrying her almost everywhere so she was forced to stay off it until it healed.

The problem was, she’d had to run that night when Daryl had thought the one-eyed dog had come back, only to open the door to at least a dozen or so walkers. (He’d never admit to it, but Beth was pretty sure he still hadn’t forgiven himself for not checking first.) He had yelled for Beth to run, putting himself between her and imminent danger, and, reluctantly, she did. She was waiting for him at the end of the driveway, had just seen him round the corner of the house. She all but sagged with relief when she saw him, but something stopped her.

Someone stopped her.

Two strong arms, one around her waist, the other clamping a hand over her mouth, stopped her. Dragged her to a waiting car that she hadn’t noticed before and threw her in the back seat despite her kicking and screaming into his palm for him to let her go. Whoever it was had just put the car in drive when Beth heard Daryl yelling out for her. She tried calling back to him, tried reaching over the bench front seat to stop the driver, turn the steering wheel, tried to do something to try to get back to Daryl.

But all her efforts were in vain as the strange man batted her hands away as if she were some annoying insect. The car lurched to the right after a loud BANG! rang out in the night.

Later she learned that Daryl had used the gun Beth had taken off the walker she’d helped take down to shoot out one of the tires on the car, causing it to swerve out of control and giving him the chance to catch up to them. She had never been so glad, so relieved, not only to see Daryl opening her door, but that the car hadn’t flipped with her bouncing around unrestrained in the back seat.

The man who’d taken her never had a chance to explain before Daryl slit his throat and let his lifeless body crumple to the ground before using his knife to make sure he never came back.

They didn’t sleep much that night. For one, they were both so shaken by the undead home invasion and almost losing each other, but for another, Daryl was burning off any residual adrenaline by hauling out the twice-dead bodies from the funeral home to be burned the next night.  He’d also said something about checking out the car once it was light enough and he’d gotten a few winks of shut eye. True, he’d shot out the tire, but if there was a spare in the trunk, they’d be able to make a quick getaway if they ever needed to.

Although, after their conversation from that night at the tiny kitchen table, before everything happened, it sounded like Daryl wouldn’t mind hanging around for a while, and Beth certainly wasn’t going to argue. They’d never really had a chance to continue that conversation in the days that followed. Well, they had, but neither of them had managed to bring up the subject, although the look in Daryl’s eyes before they were interrupted told her there was definitely more to discuss.

Regardless, without really talking about it, they ended up deciding to stay, especially with winter getting closer every day. Daryl basically refused to leave her side anymore under the pretense of making sure she was safe and taken care of, and while they still hadn’t brought up the answer to her question, or rather the lack thereof, they ended up sharing and learning quite a bit about each other. He had found a deck of cards in one of the rooms upstairs, and they’d been teaching each other all the two player games they could remember, reminiscing about times gone by with friends from another life, sharing stories they hadn’t told in years. Beth could feel them growing closer, practically by the minute. It was such a healthy alternative to learn about who Daryl really was rather than shooting moonshine and playing a stupid drinking game.  

It was enough that Beth could feel a growing attraction towards him, one that she was anxious to act on. While she was pretty sure he at least wasn’t outright disgusted by her, Daryl never really made any moves or indicated in the slightest that he’d be interested in anything more than friendship with her.

Although, knowing what she knew now about him, there was reasonable doubt that he’d never act on those feelings even if he had them. No, everything would be completely up to her, and she just wasn’t sure she was brave enough to put herself out there in case she was wrong.

Ever since he’d cleared out and re-secured the funeral home, Daryl had nearly mother-henned her to death, not wanting her out of his sight for long, fussing over her every chance he got.

Beth had to admit, as overbearing as he could be, as frustrating as it was to have him scolding her for taking any unnecessary steps, she loved that he was showing just how much he cared. More importantly, how much he cared about her.

As it was, their food stores were getting dangerously low, and even Daryl could only eat so many pickled pigs feet, so he was forced to go out and find some fresh meat for them.

There was a feeling of emptiness in her chest just thinking about him leaving.

She watched as Daryl went from room to room around the ground floor, checking and double checking that everything was shut tight and locked down until he was certain no one would be able to get in, dead or alive.

Beth was forced to watch him prepare from the couch in the main parlor. Unfortunately, her ankle was only mostly healed. She’d been walking on it more and more for the past few days and was feeling good about it…until she misstepped at the very bottom of the staircase earlier that morning, re-injuring it enough that she knew better than to try to convince Daryl otherwise.

It was probably her crying, sitting on the bottom step, that had given it away. He never did well when he saw her crying. Well, other than to point out, “Thought you didn’t cry anymore,” as his way of trying to get her to smile.

And it worked…a little, like it usually did. She looked up at him from the bottom step, her eyelashes dewy with tears not yet shed, and let the corner of her mouth curl up into half a smile.

In the long run, she was grateful he hadn’t scolded her for coming down the stairs on her own. She was sure if she’d gotten out with anyone else, she never would’ve heard the end of it for getting hurt in the first place. She was always the little sister, the youngest daughter, the babysitter…Carol’s assistant when it came to doing laundry or preparing meals. It seemed like everyone else felt she was always needing protection, like she was completely inept at doing anything to help herself. She never minded, of course. She liked being helpful, even if it was in completely domestic roles around the prison. Her taking on the more menial tasks freed everyone else up to do the more important things, like making sure the fences were never overrun with walkers and keeping everyone at the prison safe and fed. Still…

Of all the people she’d known since the world ended, Daryl had been the only one to always treat her as an adult, and she appreciated him each and every day for it. In fact, other than the past several days of dealing with the whole bum foot issue, he had been treating her more or less as an equal.

Except that now…now she was back at square one, back to being the defenseless little girl that needed someone to watch out for her because apparently, she couldn’t do it herself.

She couldn’t remember a time she had sighed so frequently or so dramatically.

Daryl had left out the front door, nodding to her over his shoulder before closing the door just as quietly as his footsteps had been. Beth wondered briefly if he’d always been this quiet, or if it was a habit he’d picked up since the dead started to roam the planet. He’d hinted at having a rough childhood, and she could only imagine what he’d actually gone through. Despite their many conversations over card games, Daryl remained tight-lipped about the details of his home life. She’d caught glimpses of his back in their time together, but never had the courage to ask how he’d gotten the scars that were scattered across it, though she could probably guess with a high percentage of accuracy. She wasn’t sure she ever would really know. If she were honest, how he got them didn’t really matter, just that he had shown that he was more than his scars, more than his past.

She could definitely relate. The silvery line hiding beneath her leather bracer on her wrist proved it.

She sat in the parlor, where they had spent their first night in the funeral home, both feet propped up on the sofa as she thumbed through one of the old hymnals she’d found in the piano bench. Beth hummed the songs she recognized, which were most of them, and debated playing them on the out of tune piano across the room from her. She figured her ankle was swollen enough without sitting on the bench, letting her foot dangle above the pedals. Instead, she stayed where Daryl had deposited her, her boots sitting on the floor beside her. Her ankle had swollen quickly and so much so that she couldn’t squeeze it into her boot. She figured she might as well let both feet breathe for a while. She certainly wasn’t going anywhere. Even if she had to get up before he got back, she’d be okay getting around the house on her own, even if she was barefoot.

Around the house…

An idea started brewing in her mind. She’d been cooped up inside this funeral home for the better part of a week now. Even if Daryl would have gone along with it, the weather had been pretty chilly outside, so she couldn’t even open windows to get a fresh breeze going through the house. After spending days, weeks, months out in the wilderness, Beth found herself missing the fresh air, especially while sitting inside the house that had basically been sealed up with corpses inside for who knows how long.

She sighed again, for the umpteenth time that day, and watched the wind play with the few stubborn leaves clinging to the trees surrounding the house. The sun was shining brightly, casting large shadows across the lawn as puffy white clouds dared to cross its path. It all looked so warm and inviting…

Promising herself it was only for a few minutes, Beth hobbled over to the window next to her and lifted it open. She was immediately rewarded with a warm breeze filling the room.

But there was something else carried on the breeze. Something…familiar.

Roses.

She vaguely remembered seeing some shrubbery lining the front of the house, though she hadn’t exactly gotten a very good look from over Daryl’s shoulder at any of it as they approached the door when they’d first arrived. The scent was unmistakable, regardless.

But surely…surely if she took just a couple laps back and forth on the front porch, to literally stop and smell the roses, while Daryl was out hunting, she could get out and stretch her legs a little, get some fresh air in her lungs, and he’d be none the wiser.

She tried pulling her boot on over her swollen and now re-wrapped ankle, but the pressure was just too much, too painful. Rather than giving up and staying in her spot like Daryl had told her, she was determined to see this through and decided to chance it and begin her barefooted excursion outside, because what was the point of only wearing one shoe, really? She’d just be off balance and would probably end up falling again, anyway.

She made sure to walk slowly, keeping one hand on the siding of the old house as an oversized substitute for crutches. Beth found that keeping her knee bent and treading carefully on the ball of her foot kept her ankle from hurting too badly. As she walked (though it was really more of a hobble), she enjoyed the sunlight kissing her toes, the planks of wood beneath her warming the soles of her feet, the unseasonably warm breeze playing with the hair that refused to be contained in her ponytail holder as per usual. If it weren’t for the leaves turning colors on the trees, she would have thought it was a warm spring day rather than autumn.

Looking out at the front lawn toward the graveyard beyond, really for the first time without being impeded by window frames or spotty moonlight peeking through clouds, she smiled brightly. She could almost pretend the world hadn’t ended. There was a tiny part of her that imagined she and Daryl were at some kind of bed and breakfast together, the two of them escaping the rest of the world like an actual couple. The thought alone turned her bright smile to a shy grin, blushing even though no one else was around.

She sighed once again and shook her head, casting the thoughts aside and focused on actual real life rather than her fantasies.

Lining the length of the porch were several lattices covered in blooming rose bushes. Without a second thought, Beth hurriedly hobbled over to inhale the scent of the flowers up close, though in reality, she could smell them from several feet away. She reached out and let her fingertips brush over the delicate petals before bringing her nose right to the center of one particularly large bloom. Her eyes drifted shut, and her mind instantly flew to her parents’ house, to how her mother would keep a vase of fresh flowers on the dining room table, often picked from the flowerbeds that surrounded their home. Her mother would often have to defend her floral decorations to her husband, saying that sometimes we just need a little reminder of the beauty of God’s creation, just like we look at the stars or sunrises or watch a thunderstorm with awe, but flowers are the only thing we can pick up and take with us as we go. She could just imagine Daryl giving her a hard time if she picked a small bouquet for the kitchen table.

If this was how she contributed, by bringing in a little bundle of beauty into their lives, so be it.

Beth thought back to when she had a similar experience, when she and Daryl had first arrived at this funeral home, how she found such beauty in the bodies laid to rest in coffins, presented in an eternal wake, waiting for a funeral that would never come. She remembered how Daryl had just stared at her, remembered the funny little flip it gave her tummy to hold eye contact with him for such a long time before he grunted and began to wrap her ankle for the first of many times. She thought of how he’d put her first so many times since they’d been together, searching for safety, food, a new home…their family.

She thought of how his hands felt on her skin, and shook her head to try to stop the flush from covering her cheeks at the memory. She didn’t need her mind to be going down that track right now.

She was still lost in her thoughts, her eyes still gently closed, when she felt it. Something, someone, brushed up against her leg. She let out a scream as she lost her balance in her panic and tumbled off the edge of the porch, catching herself in the latticework and the thorn-covered bushes. When she looked up from the ground, which was much harder than she’d expected, she saw the one-eyed dog (whom she and Daryl had begun to refer to as Lucky) looking down at her from where she’d been standing, ready to bolt any second.

“It’s okay,” she groaned out as she rolled onto her back in between the two bushes, trying to figure out a way to get back up without getting any more scratches on her arms, which wasn’t exactly an easy feat. After a moment’s deliberation, Beth went for an Army belly crawl, cringing as she could practically feel the dirt and grass further staining her already filthy shirt. Once she was out from underneath the bushes, she pulled herself up onto her knees and somehow got back on her feet. She brushed herself off as best she could and slowly climbed the few steps leading back into the house.

Lucky had apparently decided not to stick around to make sure she was okay.

She should have just gone right back to the parlor to prop her feet up again and enjoy the breeze from the couch. The problem was, she’d gotten it in her head that it would be a little surprise for Daryl, something small and simple that she could do for him. Not that he was all that into flowers, at least, not that she could tell. Still, a vase full of roses would at least be something to look at that didn’t remind them of the death that surrounded them. It was…something.

Surely there was a vase somewhere in this house.

She began opening closets and storage areas, in search of something to store the flowers in once she pruned them from their bushes. All she could find were big, gaudy things used for funerals – not at all what she was wanting. Disappointed but determined, she went into the kitchen. After all, that’s where her mother kept the simple vases she used.

Beth started with the lower cabinets and worked her way up, frustration growing with every empty space she came across. Finally ready to face defeat, she stood at the corner near the sink, hands on hips, and just barely stopped herself from stomping her foot in frustration when she saw it – a simple, clear glass vase sitting on top of the refrigerator.

Now she just had to figure out how to get one down. The only way she could imagine was to climb on one of the kitchen chairs, knowing already how Daryl wouldn’t approve.  But Daryl wasn’t home right now, and what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. And it was just a chair. She was used to depending on chairs and stepping stools, being the shortest in her family and later at the prison. It just wasn’t always practical to have to wait for someone to help retrieve things that were literally over her head.

Climbing up on the chair was the easy part; it was reaching the vase that proved to be more difficult than she’d anticipated. The fridge was deeper than she’d expected, and the vase was just far enough away that her fingertips could barely graze its bowl, resulting in just spinning it little by little, edging it closer and closer to where she could actually reach it.

It was all working perfectly until it toppled over and rolled right out of her reach…and onto the floor.

Beth groaned and released another frustrated sigh as the zillions of tiny pieces of glass scattered across the tiled floor.

After figuring out the best way to climb back to the floor without putting any unnecessary weight on her bad ankle and avoiding any shards of glass, Beth set herself to find a broom and dustpan. Once she was decently sure she’d gotten everything taken care of, she relented to going back to find one of the less ornate vases used for actual funerals and brought it back to the kitchen table.

Beth started to wonder if Daryl would laugh right out loud at the sight of the plain but still oversized vase sitting on the almost comically small kitchen table, or would he just be pissed that she’d done it in the first place. Only one way to find out.

Next she returned to the front porch with her knife to cut some of the blooms for her little impromptu arrangement, all the while making certain Lucky hadn’t come out of his hiding spot to surprise her again. Pleased with her bouquet, she made her way back to the kitchen…

…only to realize she’d need water for the roses.

She’d honestly lost track of how many times she’d sighed in the past hour alone.

It was only a short distance from the back door to the old well pump in the backyard. Beth only hoped the thing still worked. She hobbled across the dying grass with her oversized vase, her knife in its holster but not latched in just in case. Thankfully she managed to work out the rust-filled water from the old pipes before cool, clear water started pouring out of the spigot. She set the vase under the stream to catch enough to keep her roses going for at least a couple days, then stood straight up again, stretching the muscles in her lower back and shaking out her arms. She’d forgotten how strenuous it was pumping water like that. The idea that prison life had spoiled her made her laugh and let her head drop back to bask in the sun for a moment before heading back inside.

Unfortunately, the sun was directly overhead, and when she opened her eyes, it shone right into her pupils, creating huge spots in her vision.

She stood there blinking rapidly, trying to get them to clear, constantly moving so she could at least see in her periphery if there was something, anything, coming her way. When the spots had shrunk down enough that she could mostly see what was in front of her, she grabbed the vase from the ground and moved as quickly as she could inside, her heart pounding in her chest the whole time.

Having completely misjudged the distance between the door and her face, she yanked it open only to smack herself right in the forehead, almost dropping the vase in turn. Muttering a few select words, she tried again, taking care to make sure she cleared the edge of the door, and slowly made her way to the kitchen, cautious to keep any water from spilling in the hallway. Beth set the vase on the table then brought her hand to lightly examine the growing knot just above her eye. The fact that it had grown so quickly did not bode well for her.

She could already feel the headache coming on and wondered if there was any ibuprofen in one of the medicine cabinets. Maybe in the director’s office?

First thing’s first: Beth pulled out a chair to sit in as she arranged the fragrant blossoms in the vase. A bittersweet smile crossed her face and filled her heart as she remembered doing this with her mama, then trying to guess Daryl’s reaction.

Oh, he’d be furious that she’d gone outside without him, but nothing had happened…

Well, nothing major had happened…

She was still alive, wasn’t she?

Now that the flowers were arranged to her satisfaction, Beth grabbed a dish towel from one of the drawers and headed back outside. She wouldn’t be able to fashion an actual cold compress for the bump on her head, but at least some cool-ish water on the cloth might help. The bump was already quite tender, and she hoped this would help a little, at least pretend to keep the swelling down to a minimum.

When she’d returned to the kitchen, Beth remembered reading somewhere that a few drops of bleach could help blooms last longer. She knew she’d seen some under the sink when she had first looked for a vase. Excited at her homemaking skills, she hopped up and walked across the kitchen…

…and found the one piece of glass she’d missed with her broom…with her foot…her good foot.

Her sighs finally gave way to actual sobs as frustration bubbled up and and over, leaking out her eyes as big fat tears rolled down her cheeks. Not even wanting to try going in the bathroom for tweezers and a bandage (because who knows what might have happened to her in there) she clumsily made her way to the parlor, walking on the ball of one foot and the side of the other, before plopping down ungracefully onto the couch. She used the wet dish towel to wipe off her face before reapplying it to the bump on her forehead. All she could do now was close her eyes and pray for Daryl to return soon.

The warm breeze had turned cold before he came back. At that point, the smell of roses was giving her a headache, although that could have been the knot that was still throbbing under her hand.

Her stomach leapt into her throat when the front door opened and she heard Daryl’s footsteps, quiet as they were, make their way to where she was. She peeked up at him when he entered the room, trying to keep a smile on her face.

“I can explain,” she tried, but her voice was already beginning to waver. She sobbed and hiccupped her way through her story, explaining that she just wanted to do something nice for him, even if it was completely girly and so unlike him at all. She wanted him to remember that there was still good in the world, not to mention how much she appreciated everything he did for her. She apologized for being a stupid, silly girl with a bunch of flowers who was now adding to her defenseless-ness and putting more responsibility on his shoulders and…

She got scared when he sighed heavily and trudged out of the parlor. Was this where he wised up and decided she wasn’t worth the trouble? Her sobs of woe turned to those of real honest-to-goodness fear as her imagination went wild with visions of Daryl leaving her completely alone to fend for herself, fed up with her inexperience and neediness.

Beth stayed on the couch, frozen to the spot with dread, although even if she had the wherewithal to move, her injured feet would have kept her immobile anyway. She could only faintly hear movement coming from down the hallway, and could just imagine Daryl stuffing what he felt was his share of the food into a bag along with any supplies he would need before leaving the rest to her. At least, she hoped he was leaving some for her. Maybe he just thought she was a lost cause and decided leaving her food would just be delaying the inevitable.

Then she heard the back door open and close.

A fresh wave of tears tore through her, making her shiver in the cooling air in the room. She wished she’d never opened the damn window. If she’d just left things as Daryl had said, none of this would have happened.

It could have been an hour or mere moments later, but Beth felt a sudden presence in the room with her. She slowly lifted her head, dragging her eyes upward to see Daryl standing before her with two plates of steaming food, each with a fork balanced on the edge. He handed one of the plates to Beth before closing the window then crossing the room again to sit on the floor next to her.

“Gettin’ hard to take you seriously, girl,” he mumbled before stabbing a piece of meat and shoveling it into his mouth. When he looked back at her blinking and blank expression, he explained, “Second time I seen you cry today.”

“I…I thought…” she swallowed her tears back before trying to speak again. “I thought you left.”

“Nah,” he answered in between bites, “just went to cook ya some dinner.” He pointed with his chin toward her, “-t’s gonna get cold.”

Beth looked at the plate that had been sitting in her lap and saw what could have been a skinny rabbit or a well-fed squirrel; either way, it looked and smelled delicious, and tasted to match. While she wolfed down the first hot meal she’d had since they’d found this place, Daryl quickly finished and got up to leave without saying another word. A bolt of anxiety rushed through her until the remaining, yet diminishing, hopeful side of her could quash it back down. She ate slower, listening carefully, trying to track him through the house from her seat.

When Daryl returned, she saw something shiny in one hand and a bottle and something wrapped in paper in the other. He knelt at the opposite end of the couch from where she sat and picked up her newly injured foot. “The hell didn’t you take care-a this yourself, Greene? Be lucky if it ain’t already infected.”

Beth winced as he picked at the sliver in her foot and spoke through gritted teeth, “Wasn’t gonna risk it. Who knows what would have happened if I’d have tried to find tweezers and a band-aid. Probably would have slipped on the bath mat and cracked my head on the corner of the sink.”

Daryl laughed a quiet snort through his nose as he finished tending to her, taking the cloth that she had been holding to the lump on her head and dousing it with hydrogen peroxide before cleaning her wound with it, finally ending up by covering it with the band-aid. The way he held her foot, rubbing his thumbs over the ends of the bandage so tenderly sent a warm chill through Beth. She relaxed under his touch, growing more and more confident that he wasn’t going to be leaving her any time soon. Apparently satisfied that the adhesive was going to hold, at least for the time being, he lowered her foot back to the cushion then pulled himself up to sit next to her on the edge of the couch.

“I’m really sorry, Daryl,” Beth whispered. “I just wanted to do something nice for you for once.” God, she felt pathetic.

A long moment passed before he responded. “You don’t think you done anything for me?” he asked with mild astonishment. “Girl…Beth…you kept me goin’ when I didn’t have nothin’ left. You ain’t never given up on me, even when I yell an’ scream at ya. You ask me, ‘at’s more-n enough.”

Beth could only blink up at him, completely taken aback at what he’d said. A tiny grin curled at the edge of her mouth, “Really?”

“Really,” he said with all seriousness. A grin similar to her own began to grow on his normally stoic face, “‘Sides, you keep my first aid skills top notch.”

A burst of laughter bubbled up and escaped before she could stop it. She lightly, jokingly hit his shoulder. “Shut up.”

Daryl chuckled softly, then hit his knees before rising to his feet again and walked out of the room without another word, presumably to do his last perimeter check of the evening before double checking all the locks once more before retiring for the night. When he’d finished, he came back to take her now-empty plate back to the kitchen and again to slide his arms under her, supporting her legs and behind her back, lifting her to his chest with ease. “C’mon, girl. Let’s get you to bed.”

She could feel his warmth surrounding her, his hands gently squeezing her thigh and along her ribcage as he climbed the stairs, and couldn’t help but feel safe in his arms. He was being so sweet and caring and…she didn’t dare continue that train of thought, though the image of them being a couple at a cozy bed and breakfast came to the forefront of her mind once again, try as she might to push it away. Lost in her momentary reverie, her head dropped to rest on his shoulder as a tiny sigh escaped her lips.

Daryl carefully maneuvered her so he could open the door to her room. Once they had entered, however, he just…stopped, pausing for some reason still unknown to her. Beth’s arms stayed wrapped around his neck, hugging him close. Before she lost her nerve, she pressed a quick kiss to his cheek and whispered, “Thank you, Daryl.”

His eyes met hers, surprised and cautious and…something else she couldn’t quite name. He held her against his chest, basically nose to nose with each other, his eyes searching hers, still not moving to bring her to her bed.

Her heart pounding, Beth looked up to meet his eyes once again and whispered, “Daryl…what…”

“I can explain,” he started, leaning in just slightly. “But I’d rather just show ya,” he murmured just before pressing his lips to hers.

All she could do was sigh.

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